Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Recently, I watched a fascinating documentary about a tiny town in Pennsylvania known as Roseto. Founded in the 1800s by a group of Italian immigrants, the town quickly began to flourish as more and more people from their original village emigrated from Italy. At first blush, it seemed like a rather non-descript little place. Except for one strange detail that came to light in the 1950s. The Rosetans were seemingly in perfect health with a near zero mortality rate from heart attack or heart disease. The statistics were almost too staggering to be true. 

Stewart Wolf, a doctor from Oklahoma, flew to Roseto to study its people and investigate this phenomenon in the late 1950s and 1960s. Wolf studied whether genetics could be a variable, but in fact the local Rosetans proved healthier and far stronger than those that had emigrated from the same Italian village, but lived elsewhere in the United States. He studied their diet and exercise habits. But many Rosetans drank and smoked in excess, and ate fatty meats and cheeses and pickled many things in the lard from the pigs they raised in their backyard.[1]
So what was Wolf’s conclusion? In the end, the absurd strength of the Rosetan people could not be traced to genetics, diet, exercise or any other standard metric of health. In fact, by most of these traditional standards, their daily lives were diametrically opposed to good health. But when one person in town had a problem, everyone came forward to listen. Rarely, did anyone shoulder anything to great, on their own. No one ever flaunted their wealth (or lack thereof). It was irrelevant. They ate together, prayed together, sat on their porches and engaged deeply in each other’s lives. And for that, they were literally stronger. As Wolf would later write, “People are nourished by other people[2].”

As modern life progressed, increasing external factors and noise crept into Roseto. Its townspeople became less insulated, and consequently less dependent and engaged in each other’s lives. There were more fences, less time talking on front porches. Slowly, over time, the Roseto mortality rate rose to that of what is roughly equivalent to the national average. Indeed as things got increasingly stressful and noisy in the world around and within them, Rosetans started to forget a bit that all they really ever needed to manage this creeping chaos, was each other.
I was thinking about Roseto as I reflected on my own little micro-village: my family. We’d had a rough go of it this morning. Phil had promised Dylan they could wake up early at 6AM and go run at the track. This normally would have been fine since Dylan has been waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:30AM everyday for the past week and a half. Naturally, this morning, he awoke at 7:30AM. Phil explained that he really didn’t have time to dress and go over to the track before work – he’d be late. But Dylan was upset and Phil agreed to honor his promise. But Ruby, still in her nightgown became hysterical that she wasn’t going to be included. So a distracted and stressed Phil, thinking largely about work, stuffed two screaming children into his car at 7:45AM and went to the track. Dylan was thinking about himself. Phil’s mind was clearly on work. Ruby was half-dressed in the middle of a high school track thinking only about her need to be with her Daddy 24/7. A family of everyone thinking about no one but themselves.

I was at home.  It was a rough way to start the day with everyone crying and one eye still stuck shut, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the day had actually begun this way. I was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. It was 7:48. I made chocolate chip pancakes while they were out because I assumed that regardless of what the issue was, pancakes would fix it. Except for some reason I am incredibly pancake challenged. So I stood there,  frustrated by my lack of culinary abilities as my mind wandered to stuff with the house, with me, calls, emails, just more stuff that needed my attention but didn’t properly have it as I flipped and burned pancakes.
Everyone came back and grumpily ate breakfast. Phil grumpily went off to work. We all stayed in our own heads and funks. Our tiny village was struggling. The day became rainy, and everyone got progressively more crabby and tired, but when Phil arrived home tonight there was a quiet little sea shift in our town. He was greeted warmly by the kids and we actually sat down around the dinner table together. We all genuinely asked about each other’s days. We wanted to check in with each other. We skipped baths for extra story and snuggling time. As I watched them tucked into my bed, listening to Phil read, we felt whole and peaceful. At least for now, we’d pushed out all the noise and junk from this morning and the crappy outside world. I felt nourished. It was our little slice of Roseto.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/books/chapters/chapter-outliers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[2] http://www.uic.edu/classes/osci/osci590/14_2%20The%20Roseto%20Effect.htm

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