John Stepper

Why is Italo Calvino stalking me?

I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere.

It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Our first meeting

I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”

“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

At lunch

I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.

The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.

I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”

On Twitter

Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”

A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

And again a few days later.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

Surely, the universe is telling me something. The next time I am at the book store, I buy two more of his books, a collection of stories titled Cosmicomics and a novel, The Baron in the Trees.

In the car

When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.

“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber.” My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.

A conspiracy of attention

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.

More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.

Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.

“Before all of this happened, I was about to give up.”

I remember when the first part of the story unfolded. There was a Humans of NY (HONY) photo of a young boy, and Brandon Stanton asked who influenced him the most.

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

“That’s nice,” I thought. “I wonder what that woman is like.”

Over the next few weeks, I found out.

The school

Brandon photographed other teachers and administrators at the school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, “a middle school in the under-served neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.”

They all seemed like such strong people. People who were committed to their students and their community, to helping them excel, to making a difference. HONY fans got to meet Ms. Lopez.

A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez. Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.

“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

The power of community

Humans of NY launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the school. One particular program was to send 6th-graders to visit Harvard, to show them where they could be if they wanted to be. The initial goal was $100,000.

The HONY community responded and contributed. Fans even sent flowers to Ms. Lopez.

The current total is $1.4 million. Ms. Lopez announced it at a school assembly.

“As a result of this fundraiser, the entire school will be going to visit Harvard. We’re all going to Harvard!”

The kids went nuts.

In addition to the Harvard program, all funds over $700,000 are going to a scholarship fund available to graduates of Motts Hall Bridges Academy. The fund is named after Vidal, the young boy whose voice started it all. He’s also going to be the first recipient.

“I have something to admit to all of you.”

It’s such a beautiful story. Poor kids. Hardworking, committed teachers. Later on, the story inspired TV appearances and a visit with the President. But there was a poignant moment in Ms. Lopez’ talk at the school assembly.

“I have something to admit to all of you. Before all of this happened, I was about to give up. I was broken. I felt like typing my resignation. I told my mother: ‘Mom, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Because I don’t think my scholars care. And I don’t think they believe in themselves enough to care. I’m afraid they don’t think they’re good enough.’ And she told me to pray on it. But I told her, ‘I might be too angry to pray.’ And I know this is hard to believe, because you guys have never seen me break. But I was broken. It’s just like when you see your mom break down. You only see your mom cry when she’s been fighting so hard for you and she doesn’t think you care. That’s how I felt.

But then a couple nights later I was with my daughter at a Broadway show, and we were waiting for the show to start, and I started to get all these text messages from my teachers and former students. And then I saw Vidal’s face pop up on my screen. And my first thought was that something bad had happened. Because that’s normally the case around here when someone’s photo shows up unexpectedly. And the moment I realized that Vidal had said something nice about me, the usher came over and made me turn off my phone. When intermission came, my daughter said: ‘Mom, we’ve got to find out what’s happening.’ So we went and sat in the car. And I read what Vidal said, and I began to read the comments. And tears started coming down my face. Because even though I always tell you that you matter, up until that moment, I didn’t feel like I mattered.”

Who’s your Ms. Lopez? Your Vidal?

Her speech reminded me how little we know about the people who inspire and influence us. From a distance, they may seem happy and strong. Really, though, we have no idea.

But we all have doubts and fears. I certainly do. And a single voice can make a difference. Just this week, as I was thinking about giving up writing for a while, I got a lovely note from someone I don’t know well but who said how much she appreciates this blog each Saturday. I was surprised and gratified, and her note made me think of all the people who influence me, and all the notes I could send to tell them that.

Is someone doing work that has influenced you? Let them know. Your voice can make a difference.

Two years after “A year without meat”

When I wrote “A year without meat,” I was unsure what would happen afterwards.

Was it just another one of my experiments, and I would revert to normal behavior? Or was it something more than that?

Two years later, I know something fundamental changed, and it wasn’t just my diet. 

Meat

The dietary differences

The first thing that happened was that six months after the post, I stopped eating fish, too. The pattern was similar. I saw a documentary and became more aware of the extraordinary overfishing and waste as well as health issues related to eating certain fish.

I wondered, “Do I really need to be part of this?” and I decided to become a vegetarian.

Instead of my diet becoming boring and limited, just the opposite happened. I replaced the usual chicken sandwich and burger with a much wider range of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. I gradually learned the joys of fresh, whole foods artfully combined. Avocado with a drizzle of olive oil, cracked pepper, and walnuts. Spinach salad with strawberries, asparagus, almonds, and a bit of västerbotten cheese. Watermelon with feta and arugula. Food so beautiful you want to take photos of it.

Watermelon feta salad

When people ask, “Do you ever crave meat?” the answer is “Yes, sometimes.” But it’s usually a smell or other cue that sparks a desire, and after thinking about it for a few seconds, that desire passes. My family still eats meat, but much less of it than we all used to.

The changes I didn’t expect

I haven’t seen any dramatic changes in my health. My cholesterol is still too high, for example. (I have high HDL (good) and high LDL (bad) which may just be hereditary.) But rather than go back to medication, I’ll first try exercising more and modifying my diet in other ways.

Those are changes I now know I can make, because even after the first year of not eating meat, I felt that things I once considered impossible were within reach.

“When I stopped eating meat I did more than just change my diet, I gained confidence that I could change anything I wanted.”

This confidence helped me write and self-publish a book, and it made me open to creating all sorts of other possibilities.

My wife noticed the difference. When I was talking with her about a new habit I was thinking of developing, she said “You became a vegetarian, darling. If you can do that, this will be easy.”

The next big thing

It has all been a bit unsettling. I’m so used to ticking certain boxes that define me that even ordering the vegetarian meals when buying a plane ticket feels like I’m changing my identity.

When someone asks if I have food restrictions and I say “vegetarian,” it feels like I’m wearing new clothes that I’m not quite used to. I like it, but I just never thought I would be wearing that label.

So now I wonder what other labels I might change – where I live, the work I do, the adventures I go on. What other limits might I examine and redefine?

I’m not sure what the next big thing will be or if there even needs to be one. But whatever it is, I feel ready for it.

The Independence Day I’m still waiting for

Just a few minutes into the excellent documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” an interviewer asks Nina Simone “What’s free to you?”

She’s uncertain at first.

“It’s just a feeling. It’s just a feeling…”

Then she smiles her big, beautiful smile.

“I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free. And that’s something else. That’s REALLY something else!”

After thinking about it, she looks directly into his eyes, becomes more animated and intense, and loudly proclaims,

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear! I mean, really, NO FEAR!“

Finally she looks away, puts her head in her hand, and quietly muses, as if to herself,

“If I could have that half of my life. No fear…”

The prisons we build ourselves

Those of us who are fortunate enough not to fear physical violence or illness can still find ways not to be free. We worry about the past and about the future. It’s sounds almost trivial until you realize how your own thoughts can rob you of that feeling of freedom and joy.

Just the other day, someone at work asked to meet me and I was sure I was in trouble of some kind. There was no evidence. It was a simple email. Yet I created a story that maid me anxious. A few hours later, it turned out she was simply asking my advice.

The same day I was meeting with two friends who I think highly of. We had agreed to form a group to apply the ideas in my book. Rather than being excited, I was worried my friends – smart and accomplished – would be disappointed in me or my ideas. But there was no judgment. We simply met and talked and helped each other. I enjoyed their company and conversation.

These small fears prevent can prevent you from enjoying each day. The bigger ones can paralyze you.

Be free where you are

The heading “be free where you are” comes from a lecture given by a Buddhist monk inside a prison. It helped me understand that, for the prisons we build ourselves, we all have the keys.

The keys generally include being aware of the cognitive distortions we create. Being compassionate towards ourself and others. Being mindful and enjoying the present moment. For me, reading books like these and putting the ideas into practice is gradually making a difference.

It’s July 4th today and we’re celebrating Independence Day in the US. I’m not free yet, but I’m working toward making every day my own Independence Day.

be free where you are

A different kind of challenge

A few months ago, I started doing experiments in self-control. 30 days without alcohol. 30 days without dessert.

They were inspired by a book on Stoic philosophy titled A Guide to the Good Life as well as The Marshmallow Test by psychologist Walter Mischel. The experiments taught me to appreciate things I enjoy and the conditions under which I indulge (or overindulge) unthinkingly. They were lessons in gratitude and self-awareness.

My friend Marie-Louise was skeptical and, as usual, had a few questions.

“Is self-control and self-discipline the same as “self-denial”?

Does denying one’s self something (pleasure or otherwise) really increase the “chances of living a good life”?

Can it not instead be a disguise for, or deflect , what’s really inner most in our thoughts?

Is it a way instead of avoiding something else one may not want to confront?”

The challenge

Marie-Louise is a smart and intellectually curious woman whose questions always make me think. This time, she followed up her questions by suggesting a different kind of challenge.

“There is too much “learning through punishment” with the Stoics – which is why I hold my reservations about their philosophy.

But I am full of admiration for what you are trying to achieve here.
I would certainly challenge you to “do”/”add” something every day for 31 days that you find “challenging” and then I will additionally challenge you to describe the difference between the two approaches and their respective affect on you?”

Challenge accepted. Instead of denying myself something, I decided to try something I had been wanting to do for some time: meditation. Every day, for 30 days, I would meditate for 10 minutes.

Meditation for 30 days

The results

Marie-Louise asked “Would it not be just as good to ‘add’ to one’s experiences and show self-discipline in that process?”

Yes, it was just as good and in some ways better. Both approaches are empowering. The feeling of autonomy is one of our basic human motivators. Knowing I could control how I eat, drink, or think (or not eat, not drink, and not think) made me feel I could do or not do anything I truly intend.

The meditation experiment was enriching as well as empowering. I now see how in addition to being able to impose limits on myself I can open myself up to new possibilities.

That’s no small thing for me. For example, I’ve wanted to learn how to play piano for decades but I had no signs of talent and never thought I had the discipline. Now I know much of what we call talent is related to effort and that I have developed the required self-control.

I approached a teacher who’s also a family friend and she was surprised. “Are you serious? Will you really practice?” I smiled, armed with a new-found confidence in my ability to take on new challenges.

My lessons start in September. And they won’t just be for 30 days.

Piano with Pride