To Jed Depmann, with Walt and Emily

Some podcaster was saying that grief–
like taste– cannot be described in words
or shared, across the bounded vessel of Personal
Experience, to anyone’s satisfaction.

Sumptuous, he said, only means something to me–
I can’t jump inside your mouth and taste
what it means for you. The pothead
variation: “Is your blue, my blue?”

Maurice Sendak told his protegee
poems should never be illustrated.
To do so was redundant. (I presume he caught
a distinction between poetry and rhyme)

Yet he longed to illustrate “Live Oak With Moss”
Walt Whitman’s open secret, his love for men
hidden– dispersed but not diluted–
among the many Leaves.

His openness astonished Sendak,
so he bestowed the kernel of the project
—Walt would’ve said his Seed—
like a paper crown to his successor.

And now to Jed who ended dreaming
on the Summer Solstice,
who took Death’s Carriage
through the Garden Stones.

Is your death, my death?
Is my grief, your grief?
Is the peace you made– and shared–
a peace of knowing or unknowing?

Are you stranded on those golden shores
without books or boot-soles?  Belting Dickinson
by heart to the beating bloodlines of America?
Taking long airless breaths as your life unwinds across the page—unbounded now—by grass or fear or punctuation?

Tell me, Jed, is Death
a run-on or an Em-Dash?
One endless thought or just
one final interruption?

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Living in the presence of Apollo

A dog roughs his tongue on cement
A callus rises. But words? Words are the reverse of pain.
Where pain is, no words are. Apollo loves words.

-Ange Mlinko


“The resonance of the final phrase depends on the prior description of Apollo as the god in whose presence it’s impossible to grieve, not because he overwhelms grief with joy, but by some process of bringing utter drought to it. It’s an indictment, in other words, and not any kind of praise.”

-Michael Gervasio on Ange Mlinko, 2014

I have been living in the presence of Apollo. Grief went missing but was not replaced by joy. Apollo saw to it that the sun-rays bleached out everything.

After a while, you trick yourself into believing that if you can’t see any darkness, it isn’t there. But darkness is always there behind the light. The light is the mask.

Apollo with his golden mask.

Grief is a wordless golden mask.

It always feels uneasy when the gods are fucking with you.  Not quite right. Not quite whole.  Gods cannot cure pain because they did not invent it. We mortals did. Not so much invent as require.

Pain is a warning. Pain is social control. Pain is the seed of healing.

Pain is the grain of grief that, when buried, sleeps tightly in a curling darkness and hears nothing. Until the sun, Apollo with his golden mask, oppresses it with a brightness that is not joy.

Out pops a trembling flower, a narcissus.

“Oh look at me,” it says. “I could not be born of darkness. My beauty could not be made from darkness.”

And the flower talks and talks until it learns to lie. This pleases Apollo.

But the flower has its own seeds now and each one speaks no words and each one mourns the darkness it has lost.

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The Editor’s Firstborn

I stared at my inbox, unsettled by some unusually literary spam. The junk filter and my own eyes were sabotaged because the sender’s address included my first and last name, followed, I would later realize, by a spurious domain.  There was my name, and below it, in the Outlook preview, a little poem sent from the ether:

There came to port last Sunday night
The queerest little craft,
Without an inch of rigging on;
I looked and looked and laughed.
It seemed so curious that she
Should cross the Unknown water,
And moor herself right in my room,
My daughter, O my daughter!


Yet by these presents witness all
She’s welcome fifty times,
And comes consigned to Hope and Love
And common-meter rhymes.
She has no manifest but this,
No flag gloats o’er the water,
She’s too new for the British Lloyds—
My daughter, O my daughter!


Ring out, wild bells, and tame ones too!
Ring out the lover’s moon!
Ring in the little worsted socks!
Ring in the bib and spoon!
Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!
Ring in the milk and water!
Away with paper, pen, and ink—
My daughter, O my daughter!

–George W. Cable

What you see above was the complete content of the email.  No attachments.  No links.  No Nigerian Princes asking for my bank’s routing number. The attribution intrigued me. Why credit the poet in a spam email?  For that matter, why send poems at all?  I know a spam-bot or a hacker will use mass-downloaded public domain content to populate spam messages, but this was free of errors or ulterior motives. Perhaps it was a puckish English major, bored in his dorm somewhere, spreading Victorian poetry to the unlettered masses, a Pirate of the Digital Humanities!  But that was not my first thought.  My first visceral and irrational thought was that this poem was sent to me by my dead father.

In my defense, this wasn’t entirely irrational, my father’s being deceased notwithstanding. My dad used to email me poems on a daily basis. On his best days, they were poems he had written with an accompanying anecdote or commentary.  On tougher days, they were transcribed poems from a poet he was currently reading or particularly admired. Merwin, Tranströmer, Stafford, Szymborska, and Blake were some favorites in the last couple years. Sometimes he wrote his day into the poems. Sometimes he wrote his day around them. But he always sent a poem with his emails. After he died in February 2014, I grieved those missing poems the most. The connection that had spanned states and time and oceans was severed. The line was dead.

And now in January 2016, almost two years after his death, here was a missive from the Afterlife in which neither he nor I believed. Of course it couldn’t be from him, I reasoned.  The paranormal aside, Dad never sent messages to my work email!  Secondly, as all the writers for whom he was an editor and anyone who corresponded with him knew, he always used Courier font. All poems and emails he wrote were in Courier. Courier looked the most like his beloved typewriters; serifs gently caress the lowercase, the lines are thin as if a ribbon is running low, and the letters are padded with so much air you can inhale the breaths between them. This spam-poem did not have the Courier fingerprint of my father.

But on the other hand, said the part of my brain that always wants to believe in magic, maybe ghosts can’t afford to be so particular?  And Dad always used a different font–usually the bolder, more self-assured American Typewriter– when transcribing poems by published authors.  He would include the poet’s name at the bottom, just as “George W. Cable” appeared here. Although,  Dad would typically cite the book it came from in studied italics and include the title of the poem, bolded, above the verse. This poem had none of the meticulous citations I would expect.

The loudest signal of all against this spam being sent by my ghost-poet-father was that 19th century Victorian “common-meter rhymes” (particularly self-referential ones) were not at all my father’s style.  He preferred 20th century poetry.  A free verse poet who treated rhymes like tarragon or cumin– an exotic spice to sprinkle on occasion but not to base a meal around.  Really, wasn’t a refrain like “My daughter, O my daughter?” a bit too obvious for him?

What the petulant English-major spammer could not know—what perhaps only my father’s ghost could know—was how appropriate the content of the poem was to my life that week.  I had just learned that I was pregnant. The news was so fresh that I hadn’t told anyone except my husband. Not even my mother knew yet.  I wanted a baby. We had been trying deliberately to get pregnant. But as the blue plus-sign appeared in the blank eye of the pregnancy test like a ghostly polaroid, my immediate reaction was one of panic.  Not only panic but guilt about feeling a jolt of panic. Oh shit. This is really happening. How did this happen so quickly?  I should be feeling joy, not worry. What does this mean for my life now?  How can I have a baby so far from my family and friends, with such a small support network where I live?  How can I do this without my dad?

The last stanza in particular stirred me to attention. Both exuberant and a call for all hands on deck, it embraces the trappings of babydom (“Ring in the bib and spoon!”) in a surprisingly domestic way for a male poet of the 1800s. But it’s not without regret. “Ring out the lover’s moon!” sounds so ominous. Must we cease being lovers now that we are becoming parents?  Likewise, “Ring out the muse! Ring in the nurse!” and  “Away with paper, pen, and ink” felt foreboding.  When will I be able to write—how will I continue to be a writer—as a parent?

Yet, the narrator is clearly in the thralls of fatherhood. (How else could one justify such exorbitant use of exclamation points?)  And for a moment, I imagined telling my father I was pregnant. I imagined my father with his white beard–the little balls of his high cheekbones bursting off his face like they did on my wedding day–reacting just like the narrator of this poem.  Away with paper, pen and ink!  Making a child is more transcendent than writing!  And my dad’s enthusiasm, both inferred and imagined, transferred to the pit of my stomach and erased my panic. Just as it did when I chose which college to attend, when I boarded a plane for France, when I got engaged.  At moments of uncertainty in my life when I was overwhelmed by impending change, my father always pushed me to “do what scares you” and to boldly go, even to places he himself was not brave enough to tread.  His confidence in me, or in the trajectory of life despite its inevitable sorrows, made me believe that everything would be all right. If my father were here, he would be ringing out the wild bells, and the tame ones too.

As a librarian, I couldn’t just receive a spam-poem from the Beyond without researching where it came from.  On Google Books, I found a slightly edited version listed in American Familiar Verse (1904) attributed to George Washington Cable, 1844. I also found the missing title: “An Editor’s First-Born.”

My father was an editor, of course, and I am his firstborn daughter.


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anything goes

-a poem for the New Year

chickens are wearing sweaters now
“relatable” is a writer’s highest praise
rain in California is graded by severity on a scale of one to five
the world is too hot
this room too cold
if life is a choice
then we are all the makers of our own misfortune
if luck–some call it god–is a force,
then choice is nothing more than soup or salad
most people regret the things they didn’t do
and reconcile each mistake
as a footstep on the road to now
as if now is any place to envy
now only houses what we know
and have grown accustomed to
in olden days
a glimpse of stocking
cole porter smirks, pours swill from a champagne glass
his piano covered in confetti made of recycled newspapers
the past is always played in a minor key
and mostly played for laughs
something shocking
heaven knows
what the rains will bring
in this new year
this bold ignoble now
dolled up in the pearls of Madame Future
a glimpse of her shadow in the looking glass
shrugged off like a mink coat
never to be seen again


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Letter to a Lost Friend

Dear Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your___________.

New home

I hope you and yours have all survived the____________.

First Semester

I’m writing to wish you _____________.

Bon voyage
Good luck

I often think fondly of the time we ______________,

went camping for our friend’s 14th birthday
swam in the English Channel
hid in the sauna during the orchestra trip
got drunk at that graduation party

and you___________________.

went skinny dipping in an icy lake
lent me your spare bathing suit
admitted you didn’t really like your popular friends
grabbed my ass

I felt like another person, more______________.


I always admired you for your ___________________.


I wish that I had __________________.

stayed friends with your ex
never stopped trading letters with you
reconnected over coffee before you moved
known your wife a little better

I guess I always thought there would be another chance. I know it’s normal for friends to drift apart but ________________.

honestly, the choice was deliberate; I needed to move on
for a couple years there, it seemed like we were living parallel lives
I always wished we’d drifted closer, breaching each other’s inner circles
words seem so empty compared to life’s capacity to devastate

Now that __________________ ,

your brother is ill
we’ve taken divergent paths
you’re newly married in a new city
your days are filled with hospitals

I keep wanting to reach out to tell you that, whatever our friendship was or might have been, _________________________

you’re in my thoughts
we’re still connected
you cross my mind
I’m so, so sorry


Your Long Lost Friend


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The gaps

I’m writing out my medical history
for Monday’s appointment
such a bureaucratic list of grievances
Is this what our lives look like
to doctors? A pillbox of
remission and relapse,
so much, so much blood?

These are barely the bones
of my life’s story.
All the important things
happened in between
and cat-scans
prescriptions and
preventative screenings.

In these interims,
I moved to France,
fell in love
finished college
moved to France again
fell in love again
learned to lindy hop
brought my husband to America.

August 2007. Hospitalized 2 days.
I don’t remember what
the gastroenterologist said
or what the urologist said
I barely remember how sick I felt.

But I do remember
the opiate effects of sleeping pills
that I tried to fight so I could finish
watching Jon Stewart interview
Candidate Barack Obama.

I remember my boyfriend
(technically we were broken up—
technically he’s my husband now)
calling me from France on a cellphone
my mother held clandestinely to my ear
in the thin, moveable bed.
I wrote out a message in French for her
to email him word-for-word because
in the hospital they take away your cellphone,
apparently, like in prison.

And my father sitting in the corner
of the room by a small table,
as if at the tiny desk in a hotel
where he always looked so natural
writing travel poems early in the morning,
trying now, failing, not to appear worried.
“When your mother called me at work
and told me you were in the hospital,
it was like when they told me my brother was dead.
My first thought was:
who do I have to kill?”

Until then “in the hospital”
didn’t feel so serious to me.
I was relieved, grateful
to cede the tricky business
of getting out of bed and eating
to professionals. I didn’t have to pretend
to be healthy anymore.

My dad talked about Walter a lot
but never told me how he learned he’d died.
How did he find out? Was he at Berkeley?
Who made the call? (His mother, I assume,
but maybe not?). Who did my father
stop himself from killing?

This is what I remember.
Not the diagnoses, the prescriptions,
the IV, the recovery, the doctors.
I remember the startling ferocity
of my father’s love
powerless love
that changes nothing
yet mends everything.

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Les Fleurs et Les Bougies


Place de la Concorde, Paris 2006. Darcy Gervasio.

On Friday the 13th, my husband and I watched live as the terrorist attacks on Paris unfolded five time zones away.  We had just finished skyping with my husband’s cousin who is attending college in Paris; she and her aunt alerted us to the news.  As events unfolded and the body count rose, as armored police and military took action, as Barack Obama and François Hollande addressed the world, and in the aftermath since, I have been overcome with a desire to return to Paris.  Paris me manque beaucoup. Même avant ces evenements tragiques, j’avais une forte envie d’y aller.

In a strange twist of fate, my husband and I have never been in Paris together. We met in Toulouse and visited Strasbourg on vacation, but somehow all our trips to Paris were made separately.  I’ve been a number of times, mostly during my study abroad in Normandie, which was 2 hours by train from Gare Saint Lazare, and again a couple times during the year I lived in Toulouse.  Like many students of French and fans of cinema, Paris held a mythical fascination for me.  An American in Paris has been one of my favorite movies since I watched it with my Dad when I was eleven. My senior thesis was an examination of the pristine Paris in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films Amélie and Une Longue Dimanche de Fiançailles. In 2005, when I visited for the first time during the first weeks of my semester abroad, I discovered that despite the naked trees and winter drizzle, Paris lived up to the myth.  Its winding neighborhoods, the way the Seine separated the Rive Gauche from the Rive Droite, the lovely 19th century buildings with their wrought-iron grills and wooden shutters, the outdoor cafés, and the cathedrals that were older than anything I’d seen in America. The Place de la Concorde, which Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance in, was just as enchanting to me in reality. When my brother visited, we hung out at Les Halles, an historic market-turned-mall near the restaurants that were attacked. I’ve passed the Stade de France on the RER on my way into the city from Aéroporte Charles De Gaulle many times. I never went to Bataclan, but I saw shows at the Opéra Comique and the Opéra de Paris, and I drank wine with friends at cafés and brasseries and on Montmartre in the shadow of Sacre-Coeur.

It is this Paris that was attacked. This image so many of us hold dear, either through personal or cinematic experience.  Just as myths and our own fancies color this image of France and of Paris, so our own fears of mortality and the random acts of evil men allow us to imagine ourselves as the victims of this attack. We can picture ourselves at a concert, at a bar, at a football stadium. This is how terrorism works: it makes people afraid of the most mundane activities, attacking us where we live. And the Parisians especially live life in public. Les Parisiens vivent pour sortir.

There’s a line in Casablanca where Major Strasser (the Nazi) says to Bogart: “Are you one of those people who cannot bear the thought of Germans in your beloved Paris?” To which Rick replies: “It’s not particularly my beloved Paris.” But we know he is lying, as flashbacks soon reveal. Like Rick the American isolationist-turned-resistance fighter, I can’t stand to see death ravage my beloved Paris. But also like Rick and Ilsa, I remain convinced that no matter what, we’ll always have Paris.

And it was with this sense of sadness and outrage that I took to social media to commiserate and check up on our relatives and friends in France (all are safe, though a friend of my husband’s was at the soccer match when the bombs went off nearby).  Although I half expected it, I was taken aback by the speed with which the backlash to the backlash began to appear and well-meaning friends started to critique those of us expressing our solidarity and grief for not grieving enough over similar tragedies elsewhere. I understand the underlying message and the reflex to look for hypocrisy, but I saw this quickness to judge, before the blood was dry, as a kind of “All Lives Matter” rebuke that seeks to bring up every other terrorist atrocity in the wake of this current Paris attack. I don’t want to increase their hit count by linking to it, but for an example, google the blog post “America: Your Solidarity with Paris is Embarrassingly Misguided” which has been making the rounds. Can’t we take a few days to mourn for Paris? Where did this idea come from that unless we are upset about all the world’s suffering, we are not permitted to be upset about any one tragedy in particular?  Who are you to tell me my sincere feelings of solidarity, my desire to return to France, terrorists be damned, are “misguided”?

I particularly resent the serial re-posters who in the last couple days have been (re)sharing articles about the Kenyan campus attack which occurred last April. Some of my Facebook friends’ comments showed they thought the Kenyan attack had happened in the last few weeks, much like the terrorist attacks in Beirut or Ankara. This bothers me because a) blindly re-posting without checking the original post is never good practice and b) I and many people I know did react in outrage, grief, and solidarity with Kenya last April.  The media did cover the Kenya attacks at the time. Modern news cycles being what they are, you can’t completely blame them for moving on eight months later.  For an interesting take on this added layer see “The media did cover attacks in Beirut and Kenya, you just weren’t paying attention.“)

Here’s where the backlash-to-the-backlash folks are correct:

  • We didn’t put Kenyan flags on our Facebook pages or light the Freedom Tower in black, red, and green in April (#BlackLivesMatter)
  • The US media continues not to give the Beirut suicide attack that occurred on November 12th comparable coverage
  • The same with the Ankara, Turkey bombings in October (the deadliest in Turkey’s modern history)
  • The same with Buddhist attacks against the Muslim minority in Myanmar
  • The same with the Boko Haram suicide bombing in Nigeria that just happened today, killing 32 people.

Of course, the absence of media coverage and fewer outcries for solidarity with these countries is due to western bias and to collective racism that values white, western, and Christian lives over black, brown, and Muslim lives in the global South and East. Americans turn these countries into “the Other” in our minds, and we come to expect that this sort of violence is more common “over there.” Sometimes that’s because terrorist violence or civil unrest is actually more prevalent in these countries, but sometimes it’s due to our false perceptions and prejudices.  So we dull ourselves to news of yet more violence in Lebanon, in Myanmar, in Nigeria.


Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1892) “The four parts of the world holding the celestial sphere.” Musée D’Orsay, Paris. Photo 2006 by Darcy Gervasio

Yet from another angle, the attack on Paris is objectively the deadliest on French soil since World War II.  This type of thing doesn’t happen in Paris often–at least not until Charlie Hebdo back in January.  So it is more shocking and terrifying for a coordinated group of suicide bombers to attack Paris because it is so unusual in France. Is this fair?  No, but it is understandable.

Many Americans have visited, read books, or watched films about Paris. Many more have dreamed about visiting. Many fewer Americans have been to Nairobi, Ankara, Beirut, Damascus. This too is unfair. But it helps us understand why the Bataclan attack was a resonant punch in the gut for so many Americans in a way other attacks may not have been.  As President Obama said, France is the oldest ally of the United States. You don’t mourn the death of an acquaintance or a former colleague with the same intensity that you mourn the death of your brother or your best friend.  This too is unfair, but it is also supremely human.

As important as it is to examine our biases and hypocrisies, even in grief, the outcry to “mourn everyone equally”  also misses key differences.  Not all tragedy is exactly same.  There’s a sliding scale of magnitude. Daesh, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, the Boston Marathon bombers, or the Irish Republican Army– all considered terrorists–are different organizations with different ideologies, who come out of very different cultural contexts. Let us not forget that, based on what we know so far, the Paris attackers were, with one exception, born and/or raised in Belgium and France, as were the Charlie Hebdo shooters. While they were radicalized and had training, weapons and some degree of communication from Daesh in Syria, these individuals’ grievances and hatred were planted in European, not Middle Eastern, soil.  To prevent further attacks, we must remember this and tend to our own gardens first, as Voltaire might say, before we bomb foreign lands and close our borders to Syrian refugees who themselves are victims fleeing Daesh.  France must heal its own social divisions. This must happen through tolerance and true multiculturalism only, not through “assimilation” and laws that unfairly target the way Muslims dress or worship or apply different rules for visas, work permits, and naturalization for immigrants from Muslim and North African countries.  In my time living there and knowing many Franco-Algerians and Franco-Moroccans (both immigrants and French-born citizens), I’ve seen French attitudes towards Muslim immigrants and observed a general assimilationist attitude in the mainstream culture that “anyone can be French as long as they adopt the dress, behaviors, and values of a traditional white French person.” The focus on assimilation rather than on multiculturalism (aka the American “melting pot” mentality) is a key difference between how the U.S. and France integrate immigrants into their social fabric.

In short, to lump all acts of terror together in an “All Lives Matter” way ignores key cultural and historical differences that could be instrumental in preventing future attacks and dismantling Daesh and other terrorist organizations.  Instead of seeing America’s mourning for Paris as a failure to empathize with similar loss of life in Arab, African or Asian nations, let’s think of it as a start. The start of opening our hearts wider to others in similar plights.  Next time there’s a mass shooting, a suicide bomber, a hostage crisis in another country or in our own, let’s remember Paris. Just as we remember Boston and New York.  Je me souviens de Paris. It takes all of us to hold up the four parts of the world.

Or, in the touching words of this young French boy, let us at least remember that violence is never the answer. We have something stronger. We have flowers and candles to protect us.


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What your (more) liberal friends are upset about now

As a progressive/liberal/leftist, I admit to succumbing to progressive click-bait, especially on social media, and lists are no exception.  As Buzzfeed well knows, online lists have become a genre of their own.  But these heartwarming stories of the underprivileged overcoming the odds, these copious lists of dos, don’ts, and “myths we need to stop spreading” can quickly lead down rabbit holes of discord.  No sooner does a “feel-good” story go viral than the backlash begins, followed by the backlash against the backlash.  I admire and support the whistle-blowers, the dreamers, the civilly disobedient, and the idealists.  But (you knew there was a but) it sometimes feels like us lefties can never be content or take a brief moment to rejoice in a small bit of progress until everyone in the world is perfectly happy, equally represented, and completely conflict-free.  So I’ll save all my left-leaning friends the trouble of reading their Twitter and Facebook feeds as I share a new list…

11 Things Your Even-More-Liberal Friends Are Riled Up About Now:

  1. Cards Against Humanity

  2. Stealth gluten

  3. Pumpkin spice hegemony

  4. Robot gender binary (why are 0 and 1 the only two options?)

  5. BPA-free condoms

  6. Lumbersexual cultural appropriation

  7. Trigger warnings for Lamisil commercials (unexpected anthropomorphic toenail fungus is truly traumatic!)

  8. Muffintop removal

  9. NSA Headquarters won’t let visitors check in on FourSquare

  10. Upworthy fails to equally represent the experiences of America’s Pessimists

  11. Bernie Sanders: why has he not yet spoken out in support of introverts?

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the whole salami

I generally share my food. I’m not the kind of eater who will polish off an entire box of Cheez-its or an entire french silk pie by myself.  I’ve never hidden food somewhere to keep it from the clutches of peckish relatives or thoughtless roommates.  Maybe if I’d grown up like my husband in a large family with eight siblings, or like my father whose disabled brother grabbed food off other people’s plates at meals, I would have learned to safeguard my favorite treat and to savor it with abandon in the rapt solitude of a private hideaway.  Instead, for whatever social, psychological, or physiological reasons, I tend to treat food as a communal experience.  I offer my friends and relatives bites of my cheesecake.  I am secretly thrilled when a friend steals a french fry off my plate without asking, and I interpret this familiar gesture as a sign of the depth and longevity of our bond.  As my husband can tell you, I pitilessly insist on sharing his Coca-Cola at dinner.  So, I generally share my food. Except for my hard salami.

Yes, my inner thirteen-year-old boy is laughing too, but I am talking about actual salami here. The kind from Italian grocery stores that is cured, perhaps lightly peppered, dried, and hung on strings from the rafters. The kind that is served with hard Parmesan cheese and sun-dried tomatoes as an appetizer or on a plate of charcuterie.*  The kind that comes shrink-wrapped in plastic or, even more authentically, with a white paper film that must be expertly peeled from the rind before it is consumed. I did not always eat an entire salami by myself (yes, I know, that’s what she said).  This is a recent phenomenon.  But before I get to that, let me explain my history with salami.

It’s a heritage food, for me. Like latkes or meatballs. I don’t remember a time before I liked salami.  I had it in sandwiches in elementary school.  I liked it better than bologna or PB&J.  My father, who was Italian-Croatian, used to order sliced Genoa salami at the grocery store deli counter with extra emphasis on the “GENoa.”  On more than one occasion, the young Midwestern woman of Polish or German ancestry who was staffing the deli replied with skeptical alarm and an accent reminiscent of Fargo: “Oh. So that’s how you say it?! I thought it was pronounced guh-NOH-ah.”  Depending on his mood, this could be a charming small-town social interaction or an indication of the vast cultural and culinary tundra between my San Francisco-bred parents the the uncultured rubes of central Wisconsin.  If they couldn’t pronounce Genoa, how could we ever hope they’d correctly pronounce our last name, Gervasio?  Perhaps it goes without saying but this flimsy, shaved grocery store deli salami was of an entirely different breed than the cured, flavorful, hard salamis served up before a meal by my Croatian grandmother.  They were so different, in fact, that as I child I was convinced they were two different foods. The latter was “Salami!” while the former was just “lunch meat!”*

My Grandma lives in Visitacion Valley, which was in her day a working class Italian and Croatian neighborhood on the south side of San Francisco. Whenever we visited SF from the East, South, or Midwest, she would make sure to have three San Francisco foods ready for my father: a loaf of french bread (sourdough), See’s candies, and a Molinari salami.  Today, you can still buy Molinari sausages in North Beach, but the shop closest to my Grandma’s neighborhood either closed or raised its prices. I remember sitting in her warm, spotless kitchen nook with my brother, basking in soft yellow light from the skylight over the stove and chewing thick round slices of salami with crackers and cheese.  Often, we forewent the crackers.  I enjoyed peeling off the hardened ring of skin, which I would sometimes eat anyway.  For a year or two, when I went through a “picky eater” phase, I would use a fork or a finger to poke out any peppercorns that interrupted the marbled white and pink meat. I was sure these flat peppers were alien intruders hellbent on infusing suspiciously grown-up flavors into an otherwise perfect foodstuff.

Every year at Christmas, and also at Easter although we didn’t celebrate it, my grandmother would mail us a Molinari sausage and a big box of See’s Candy.  When she came to visit us, she would bring one in her suitcase. This tradition continued when I went to college.  My Grandma began to send me care packages with See’s and Molinari salami throughout the year under the guise of celebrating some off-season holiday like Halloween or Valentine’s Day– holidays for which one does not usually receive gifts from one’s grandmother at all, let alone a pound of hard salami!  Ever-prepared and cognizant of the limitations of dorm living, Grandma included in the package a serrated steak knife protected carefully in aluminum foil and an extra square of foil to cover the end of the salami.  As I worked through midterms, the salami would diminish little by little until that square of aluminum wrapped around the hardened nub that was fastened with a flat, metal staple.

Again, when it comes to food, I am a sharer. It felt gluttonous, physically impossible, and a bit sickening to imagine myself eating an entire salami or box of See’s alone.  My roommate and French House buddies gladly helped me with the See’s. However, Oberlin being the vegan and vegetarian haven that it is, it was hard to find people eager to partake in cured meat, let alone one of the pork persuasion. On some level as well, I wanted to share this gift from my Grandma with people who would savor and appreciate it.  Just as you didn’t bring an expensive bottle of Woodford Reserve to a house party where PBR was being served, you didn’t leave your salami out in the dorm lounge with a “please eat me” sign on it. (Pause for juvenile laughter here.)  Luckily, my friend Michael appeared on the scene, usually with a box of Triskets and a brick of cheddar.  Michael used to make unannounced social rounds at his friends’ dorm rooms on the north side of campus when he was procrastinating or needed a break. It was really a great practice, which I’m sure today’s undergrads are missing out on, what with their fancy iPhones and their text messaging and their Insta-chats (Pause for cranky old person laughter here).  Michael and I would enjoy the Molinari, cheese, and crackers on random Tuesday nights and take a break from studying to discuss our secret crushes and all the world’s ills.

Two years after college, the Molinari shop in San Francisco either became too expensive or too complicated for my Grandma to visit regularly.  I expect it was a combination of traffic, parking, and price inflation. When a care package came from her one day with See’s truffles but without a salami, I must have mentioned something to Michael.  A month or two later, a strange poster-tube appeared on my doorstep. I was living with my parents in Wisconsin at the time, having recently returned to the States from France. I was working at Target, and later at an insurance company, while trying to figure out how adult life was supposed to happen.  The mysterious poster-tube was about 16 inches long and crushed slightly on one end. It had no return address. I had no idea what could be inside. It had a Priority Mail label and a faint red stamp reading “Perishable.”  Michael, who had just started graduate school at UC-Berkeley, had mailed me a Molinari salami.

Yet even then, when I received a salami that literally had my name on it, I still did not think to eat it alone. I shared it with my parents.  So how have I come to have a salami, albeit a small one, all to myself?  How did I become a lone sausage eater?  Simple. My husband does not, has never, and will never eat pork.

I’m not sure exactly how my husband would describe himself, as a Muslim.  If pressed, he might say he is “believing but not practicing.”  He would probably not say he was “a lapsed Muslim” the way many of my friends say “lapsed Catholic.”  He also would not say “a secular Muslim” the way my mother, brother, or I might call ourselves “secular Jews.”  Generally, religion does not interfere too much with his eating habits. He does fast during Ramadan and makes an effort to find halal meat during that month, but the rest of the year, he will eat chicken or hamburgers from secular grocery stores for convenience. Yet there has been one line drawn firmly in the sand that my husband will not cross: PORK.  He won’t even entertain the possibility of bacon. He judiciously polices hotdogs for a “kosher” label, and once opted for a rather disgusting veggie-dog at the Johnsonville Brat Fest in Madison, WI because the doe-eyed staff could not assure him what kind of meat was or was not in their hotdogs.  Even the fake-bacon “bacon bits” placed on a salad elicit a kind of revulsion usually reserved (by Americans at least) only for tripe and escargot.  At one point, he even had a conversation with my psychologist mother about classical conditioning and how, without ever having tasted it, thinking about pork products makes him gag.

Growing up as a secular Jew who is also Croatian-Italian, my family has always eaten pig products. I’m not a fan of ham, ribs, or pork chops, but my two exceptions– the two kinds of pig meat I genuinely enjoy– are bacon and salami.  Pepperoni, a subset of salami, is included. This lead to intense negotiations at the beginning of our relationship because pizza just isn’t pizza without pepperoni.  Could my husband pick the pepperonis off the pizza?  Absolutely not!  Would I give up eating all pepperoni forever in his presence?  Hell no!  Would he accept a pizza that was half-pepperoni, half-cheese?  This, too, was rejected but lead us towards common ground.  Eventually we struck a bargain that might seem bizarre but works for us: We would not eat pork products at home, but outside the house, I could order whatever I wanted. Bring on the BLTs.  (When it comes to communal pizza, though, we usually opt for mushroom and olive).

At some point, salami became a tolerated exception to this rule. Perhaps my grandmother mailed me a salami for our first Christmas together, forgetting as she always does with marshmallow peeps, that my husband won’t eat pork. Or perhaps I bought a Molinari import at an artisanal grocery shop in New York as a treat when my brother came to visit us for Thanksgiving. My husband still won’t eat it, and I don’t try to offer it to him, but on rare, special occasions, a hard salami makes an appearance in our house.  And when it does, I will eat it in measured reverence, slice by slice, as an after-work snack or a weekend lunch plate of charcuterie.  It may take weeks or mere days to finish it, but luckily, salami is a food made to last the winter in a smokehouse and to provide sustenance when the lands are barren and snow-covered and all the greens are gone. Whatever hang-ups I might have had about eating the whole thing– being gluttonous, feeling unladylike, wasting a delicious communal experience– have vanished.  It is my salami now; a treat just for me.  I don’t have to share it.  I will proudly eat the whole salami.  Hi-ho.

(*An aside: In my sixth grade French class, I learned the word “charcuterie” which my textbook translated as “cold cuts.” I had no idea what either word in either language could possibly mean because in my house we just called it “lunch meat.”)

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Ten Words Faculty Brats Grew Up Knowing

Children of faculty grow up learning some very distinctive vocabulary.  Here are 10 words I learned through osmosis as a kid because of my mother’s job as a college professor– and what they meant to me at the time.

  1. Campus: Where Mom goes to work. I can’t remember ever not knowing the word “campus.”
  2.  The Dean: Somebody very important but often vexing and bossy.
  3. Tenure: Something you “get” after a lot of stress and arguing. My mom got tenure when I was about 5 and explained to me that “tenure” meant she couldn’t be fired. Then she had to explain what “fired” meant.
  4. The Department Chair: I was 6 when I learned this was a person, not a communal piece of furniture.
  5. Semester/ Trimester/ Term: Kind of like a season, but shorter and marked by flurries of intense grading.
  6. Advisee: Similar to a student except more lost, disorganized, chronically late. 
  7. Performing Arts Center: Where you take dance classes sometimes and see musicians, plays, and strange blob sculptures that are called “student art.”
  8. Conference: “Mom’s away at a conference again. Time to go see Terminator 2 without her!”
  9. PhD: If your mom is a doctor, but not that kind of doctor, she has a PhD. 
  10. Sabbatical: That year you moved to India or Boston or Alaska for “research,” Mom didn’t teach any classes, and your parents were so excited and happy.



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