Category Archives: essay

The Editor’s Firstborn (Part I)

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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Les Fleurs et Les Bougies

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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.

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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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Upstate

“You’re not excited to see where you were born?  I’m more excited than you are!” my husband told me as we packed for a weekend trip to upstate New York last weekend.

“I have no opinion about that,” I said, like Fat Charlie the Archangel from a Paul Simon song my dad loved.

The house where I was born is still the same, only smaller.  Low.  Flat.  White siding.  Rust-red shutters.  Everything gets smaller, the older we get.  If “home” can be defined by longing, then there was no longing–and no home– here.  That house, with the long hallways made for “piggy ball” and chasing little brothers, with the strange Victorian newsprint wallpaper in the bathroom, with the basement that smelled like basements everywhere. The basement slightly terrified me because you could see through the stairs and there was a paper Halloween witch on one of the closet doors, but once I got downstairs, I would feel reassured by the sounds of my dad’s typewriter. Whether they changed the interior or not, this house itself does not feel like home.  At one time, it was all I knew.  At one time, it was “ours.”  Now, it doesn’t even feel like the memory of  home.

 

house where i was born (so to speak)

the house where i was born (so to speak)

We left upstate New York for Virginia when I was eight.  In comparison, moving to Wisconsin at thirteen was a much harder adjustment.  I have happy memories of New York, but they are childhood’s memories: watching and later acting out The Wizard of Oz with friends, learning to swim in the town pool, sharpening sticks in the backyard, which was really one big backyard that stretched the whole block and felt wild and vast.

The town also looks the same.  In the forgiving light of the evening, with softly intense sunlight sneaking down at angles after a sudden downpour, the town looks quaint and adorable.  In the right light, even the outskirts, the dead-fish factories, the dilapidated barns, the pick-up truck cab that’s now a planter in someone’s front yard, all look rather charming.  The woods, the corn, the rolling hills have a Thoreau appeal.  In a romantic mood, you can still imagine forests and Iroquois hunters dominating the Mohawk Valley, much like Cooper and Irving did (with all their “noble savage” nostalgia).  But romance only goes so far.  I know how much the children-of-the-corn fields viscerally perturbed my father, how the black country roads at night starred in my mother’s anxiety dreams, how many times I said “I’m bored” during the long summers.  I liked it there as a kid, not because of some Norman Rockwell ideal of leaving your backdoor open, kids running loose and catching lightning bugs, and neighbors looking out for each other, but because my parents and their friends consciously created entertainment and community and culture for us.  In the summers, the parents took turns teaching us to swim or sew or play baseball, according to their talents.  My dad drove us to parks and old forts and the movies, making our Subaru gallop up and down winding country roads–blasting Bruce Springsteen on the radio of course– in lieu of a roller coaster.

It would seem my inherent distrust of winter— born of my respect for its inevitability– applies to memory as well.  I’m not a very stalwart nomad. I never learned to shed an old land like an old season.  There can be no homelessness without nostalgia.  But as a homeless nostalgic, I try to make sure I’m at least being nostalgic about the right home.  And home, I’ve come to find, is so much more time than it is place.

I envy people like my husband, for whom, “home” is a specific pale blue-and-yellow house with a metal door and white lace curtains that billow in the breeze in the city up a hot, slanting hill.  He grew up there; his people are still there; this was the home he left when he moved to France to seek his fortune.  He is greeted like a prodigal celebrity when he returns to his neighborhood, shaking hands with every neighbor on the block.  I almost can’t understand what he means when he talks about missing home or being homesick.  It’s so unified. So succinct.  To miss your mother is the same as missing your old bed, as missing the laundry flapping on the terrace while you kick a soccer ball with your sister, as missing childhood. Or if not the same, at least they’re very close.

What I miss about upstate New York were the Friday night dinners with other families in our “Play Group,” and the creative thrill of building a stick fort or inventing a new game with other kids.  I miss the immersiveness of playing dress-up as a child. I miss my love-hate relationship with the texture of our old saggy couch that gave me carpet burns.  I miss how my dad used to refer to himself as a poet back then, even if it sometimes sat strangely on his tongue.

I’m not sure what my husband learned about me from seeing the house I was born in. On our last trip to Algeria, I think he started to understand the phrase “you can’t go home again,” because he recognizes how much living in America has changed him.  But that cement house–that street–that city will always be his one-and-only boyhood home. My mom, who came with us, didn’t seem to be nostalgic about the old house or that time “in the slightest.”  We had a great weekend. We saw old friends, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I marveled at how much smaller our friend’s house appeared to me, after 25 years, my mom replied: “It’s always been a small house.”

Other houses I’ve lived in– and some that I have only visited– have felt more like home, and the impossibility of returning to other places, other times twists the knife of homesickness much more than this little white ranch house in upstate New York.  Now this house is just a security question: “What’s the address of your childhood home?”  As if such a thing could ever be so clear-cut!  When I answer it, I always have to remember which “home” I designated, and I always curse the inventors of such questions, who obviously grew up as privileged, sheltered people who never got to move and never felt like nomads.

 

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an honest man and an honest writer

After my father died, I set myself the goal of reading all the books he’s sent me before this year ends. I started with this biography of E.B. White. I wanted so much to share my thoughts on the book with my father, so I did what I would have done if he were still alive: I wrote him a letter, which I am excited to share with you now.

3.17.14

Dear Dad,

I just finished The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, which you sent me for my birthday or maybe Christmas (or perhaps no reason at all) last year or the year before that. I have the letter you sent with it in my filebox, I’m sure.  I began to read the book once, making it past the forward and into the first chapter, but I couldn’t overcome my love-hate relationship to nonfiction.  It wasn’t until we moved to Mount Vernon and I could imagine walking down to Summit Avenue past the corner where E.B. White’s boyhood home stood or perhaps still stands, that I felt compelled as if by some giant magnet to finish reading it.  I marked the cross-streets where the house once stood and, as soon as the weather warmed up, I looked for it. There weren’t really any remnants of the barn–just a garage that’s seen better days, but here is a photo of E.B. White’s childhood home as it is today:

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Sims’ style is breezy and rich like good travel writing—he clearly has tried to inhabit White and bring him back to life.  He is an unabashed fan and doesn’t hide behind the mask of professional distance, doesn’t force himself to be critical just for the sake of seeming “fair and balanced” or “provocative.” I imagine Elwyn Brooks White growing up in a Vincent Minelli version of Mount Vernon full of sledding hills in winter and lush lawns and carriages in summer.  There used to be a vaudeville theater on Gramatan Avenue!  Was it next to Maggie Spilane’s? Or on what’s now the “dodgy” end, past the roundabout with the fountain where rundown barbershop polls are frozen next to delis selling lotto tickets and greasy kabobs?  You’d think I would have seen a decayed facade… I did see Lincoln Elementary School, probably on the same grounds where Elwyn went to school in the 1910s—one hundred years ago!—but now as a sterilized 1970s brown brick building.

Equally engaging was Sims’ account of young Elwyn—redubbed Andy by his Cornell frat buddies after a beloved college founder, Andy White (no relation)— entering the literary world.  Andy’s first publications were poems and essays of a nature-writing variety sent to the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. In my History of Reading and Readers class at library school, one of my classmates researched the publication history of Saint Nicholas, the first American magazine for and by children. I felt a twinge of proud librarian expertise at the recognition of the name. (I did learn something at my fancy school.) Sims documents with a historian’s precision but a fan’s devotion the literary culture of New York in the 1920s, detailing the newspapers, satirical rags, and high literary magazines that populated the newsstands in Grand Central station during that golden age of American print. He imagines–apocryphally, but who cares?–Andy picking up the first issue of The New Yorker at the news kiosk next to Grand Central’s globe clock with early morning light streaming in from the high, rounded cathedral windows. Having seen the streaks of light across the marble floors, I could fill in rest: the wooden benches (all removed now to discourage the homeless) that once filled the hall, the train schedules (that still exist) flipping over with mechanical clacking like clockwork dominoes, the newsboys in caps and knickers, the ladies in cloche hats carrying portmanteaux or parasols.  And Andy, who was too skinny to be drafted in World War I, delighting in this cheeky new upstart magazine, The New Yorker, and deciding—to hell with his advertising job!—he would submit something.

Publishing seemed so open back then. Although there were more daily publications, there seemed to be freer reign. Perhaps fewer writers were available than today, since comparatively fewer people were highly educated or went to college?  Perhaps Sims was exercising a bit of biographical determinism by making Andy’s rise to a writing career seem simpler than it was. Or perhaps the 1920s and 1930s really were a scrappier time when an adolescent America was hungry for taste-makers and experimentation, and where print reigned supreme in the media kingdom, despite the oncoming storm of Talking Pictures? I was left feeling both invigorated, as a writer, by E.B. White’s origin story and a little despairing: “if only publishing were still that simple…”

The descriptions of New York bustle, which Sims recreates from historical research and copious close readings of Andy White’s regular “Comments” columns from years of New Yorkers, drew me further into his story.  Again, I saw yesterday’s New York waving behind today’s.  Yet Andy White himself regularly sought refuge from the city, eventually moving to a farm in Maine, near where he’d vacationed as a boy.  This farm and his childhood barn and love for animals of all kinds, particularly birds, cows, and dogs, spawned Charlotte’s Web.  That’s the contention of Michael Sims who quite convincingly uncovers references to animals—especially spiders—in Andy’s early writings dating to childhood and his New Yorker days.  It’s the animal-lover side of E.B. White that I identify with least.  As much as I can appreciate natural beauty when confronted with it and enjoy anthropomorphism in literature, I don’t feel the same connection with animals that lead E.B. White to spend a year researching the life and death of barn spiders.  Nor can I easily put aside my disgust and enmity for the mouse that seems to be living in our stove when I read about young Elwyn taming a mouse who used to visit his childhood bedroom in Mount Vernon, eventually inspiring Stuart Little. The brilliance of Charlotte’s Web and White’s writing is that he made Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton and farm life real for children all over the world.  Reading Charlotte’s Web at age 6 or 7, I did learn–at least morally– to respect and empathize with spiders and pigs.  Recently, my librarian friend Angie’s 9-year-old son explained to me that he has decided to be a vegetarian because of Wilbur.

As I wrote two years ago upon seeing the real toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, the literature of childhood resonates with people in a visceral way that is hard to describe and analyze.  That makes Sims’ biography all the more impressive to me.  He captures the frenzy, excitement, and setbacks of the writing and editing process, and he includes reproductions of White’s manuscripts. As the chapters get closer to the publication and success of Charlotte’s Web, the reader experiences emotional reactions of recognition—“Aha, finally, this is the part I know!”—and revelation—“I didn’t know that! So that’s how it happened.”  When influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore panned Charlotte’s Web as she had panned Stuart Little, I felt professional shame on behalf of all librarians!

I finished the E.B. White biography alongside a visit to the Morgan Library’s exhibit of manuscripts and draft drawings from The Little Prince, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1942 as an expat in New York. I was struck by how similar both men were in their writing processes and beliefs about how to write for children, yet how different their personalities seemed to be.  Saint-Exupéry was a daredevil who felt restless in Manhattan and wrote the French military for special permission to reenlist as a pilot in North Africa.  Just as his novel was taking off, he disappeared during a solo recon mission over the Sahara dessert in 1944 at age 44. By contrast, E.B. White suffered from hay fever and sinus problems throughout his life and went through periods of chronic and possibly psychosomatic illnesses, yet he lived into his 80s and died at home in Maine in 1986.  Saint-Exupéry never fully mastered English but was part of the French expat community in New York, which eventually lead him to meet the wives of two American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, who ended up publishing Le Petit Prince, first in French then a few months later in English, here in New York.  It wasn’t until 1945 that the novel was reprinted and more widely distributed by a French publisher, Gallimard, in France. By then, Saint-Exupéry was already missing over the Sahara, leaving only his ID bracelet and some plane parts behind. This broken bracelet sat in a display box at the Morgan Library, making me wonder if Antoine had in fact evaporated like his Little Prince and traveled back to his home planet.

The two authors never met, although they could have, in theory. Surely E.B. White was summering in Maine in 1942-43 while Saint-Exupéry was busy sketching elephants inside boa constrictors in a rented house on Long Island.  Michael Sims’ biography mentions that E.B. White’s wife, Katherine Angell White, a long time fiction editor for The New Yorker, where they met, reviewed The Little Prince for the magazine. In her brief review of the novel, Katherine quoted their young son, Joe White, as saying somewhat critically that: “The author seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way.”  In contrast, E.B. White seems to write about childhood in a grownup way. He peppers Charlotte’s Web with sly vocabulary lessons; Charlotte is always defining words for Wilbur including: aeronaut, humble, salutations, and her last name, taken from the genus and species of her type of barn spider: Charlotte Aranea Cavatica.

Yet, to me, there seem to be more stylistic similarities than differences between Charlotte’s Web and Le Petit Prince.  Neither book shies away from death or making larger points about life and morality; both are deeper than most children’s books appear. Both books were whittled down expertly, mostly by the author-as-editor, to their essence.  According to the Morgan Library exhibit, Sainte-Expuéry’s first manuscripts were nearly double the word count of his final draft.  White struck out entire passages and scenes, reworking Charlotte’s Web for a couple years before sharing it with his editor.

Perhaps the difference lies in the space between the sentences.  The simplicity of language in Le Petit Prince undercuts deep and obscure meanings. It’s airy and metaphorical, a fable fallen from the stars. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of concision and clarity, a fable grounded in the earth. E.B. White uses language that’s been refined and revised down to its core to present an unmistakable truth.  The difference could be explained in part by the inherent Frenchness of Le Petit Prince—its roots in LaFontaine fables and the darker fairytales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson whose Little Mermaid was one inspiration for the Little Prince. This contrasts with the inherent Americanness of the farm setting and folksy human characters in Charlotte’s Web.  The illustrations, essential to both books, also carry different weight: Saint-Exupéry’s colorful petit bonhomme, playful proportions, and winking stars are ethereal and whimsical, while Garth Williams’ black-and-white ink drawings are grounded, accessible, and realistic.  (According to Sims, Williams agonized over how to make Charlotte a charming but still scientifically accurate spider.)

The main difference, finally, is that in Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry orbits around a mysterious core, searching for those essential things that are invisible to the eye.  In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White serves up the essential on a silver platter. Saint-Exupéry says: “You can see the truth if you look closely enough.”  E.B. White says: “Look, the truth was here all along.”

Love,

Your Daughter

P.S. According to Sims, , E.B. White borrowed the final line of Charlotte’s Web from his wife Katherine: “It’s not often someone comes along that’s a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  Katherine publicly defended her husband’s essay-writing against a scathing New York Times critic, writing in her reply: “They [the critic’s words] are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.”  How small his change of “honest man” to “true friend,” yet how it makes all the difference!

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Jon Stewart, Meet Me At Camera Three

Like many fans and critics, I’ve been preemptively nostalgic about the impending end of Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show. When Jon announced his retirement, I was astonished and moved. From my adolescence until now, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show was a constant, a salvo, an adult version of a bed-time story. Particularly in the Bush years, but equally today, it has been an oasis of sanity in an ever-darkening geopolitical climate and an ever-sensationalized media landscape.

For someone who came of voting age just eleven months after 9/11 and who came into the workforce during the Great Recession, it has been reassuring to hear a voice of truth and humor cutting through the bullshit and the darkness and telling me: “You’re not alone. There is still sanity somewhere. As long as we all know this is fucked up, and we acknowledge it, all is not lost.”  I’ve lived in red states, blue states, purple states, and blaze orange cheesehead states. I’ve lived in a socialist country, a former Capital of the Confederacy, the Big Apple, and the People’s Republic of Madison. Jon Stewart kept me centered through it all and reminded me that I was not alone as a Jew, a progressive, a skeptic, an educator, a nerd, a lover of nuance, and an aficionado of dick jokes.

I started watching The Daily Show with my dad in 1998, when we got cable and Comedy Central for the first time. My father, the funniest and smartest man I’ve ever known personally, was channel surfing for some late-night stand-up and instead found a young comedian in a big suit with a Carlinesque wit. The Daily Show became an instant household habit, overtaking The Tonight Show, the nightly news, and even SNL’s Weekend Update in our esteem. The madcap antics of the Stephens (Carell and Colbert) and the other correspondents during the hanging chads of Indecision 2000 had us hooked. I remember thinking John McCain was cool because he was willing to joke around with Jon and Stephen Colbert at the New Hampshire primary (McCain, what happened?!). My dad was a Catholic atheist, and my mom a Jewish agnostic, so my family especially enjoyed Colbert’s “This Week in God” segments and Lewis Black’s rants about the “War on Christmas.” I identified with little things like when Jon asked Israel or Iran tomeet me at camera three” for a personal appeal/take-down or remarked during an interview: “I’m Jewish, and my wife’s Catholic. We’re raising our children to be sad.”

In college, especially during the War in Iraq and Indecision 2004, my classmates and I crowded around the TV in the dorm lounge to watch Jon every night. We would usually talk politics and joke around afterwards, ignoring Crank Yankers or whatever bullshit Colin Quinn show filled the 11:30 slot in the years before The Colbert Report. During Spring Break in 2004, my roommate and I introduced her parents to The Daily Show, and both her liberal mom and conservative dad became regular viewers of what they called “the Funny News.”

When I moved to France after college in 2006, discovering Daily Show episodes at Comedy Central online felt like a small miracle (streaming was still pretty new then). Jon Stewart was my cure for homesickness, where I turned to find out what was really going on back home. It was worth all the buffering and watching the same Chevy commercial ad nauseum to hear Jon joke about the man who apologized to Dick Cheney for being shot in the face by Dick Cheney, or try fruitlessly to convince Bill O’Reilly that a stuffed teddy bear he’d offered him was definitely without a doubt NOT a panda bear, or hone his spot-on George W. Bush chortle.

Several of my French colleagues eagerly professed to me their love of Jon Stewart, as if confirming their proud membership in a secret, international club. For them, if I was a Jon-Stewart-style-American, then I must be OK. I must be a rational, thoughtful, balanced, healthily skeptical, 21st century American– not like the gun-toting consumer of Freedom Fries, the Mormon sister-wives, the Amish school-shooter, or the cowboy president featured so heavily in French news media at the time. These were the darkest days of the War in Iraq, when I preferred to hear George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on the French news because at least their overconfident, misleading, folksy, swaggering speeches about “smoking out evil-doers” sounded more sophisticated dubbed in French.

My personal life was unsettled as well. I’d just started my first job out of college, teaching middle school English with no training whatsoever. I was living on my own in a foreign country, renting a tiny apartment from an eccentric, racist landlady. She certainly was shocked when I began dating an Algerian Muslim grad student!  We were falling in love, but I agonized over our long-term prospects and compatibility. Was I concerned because he was Muslim and I was Jewish? Because his family lived in Algeria and mine in Wisconsin? Because my French wasn’t yet good enough to win arguments against him? Nope. I wasn’t worried about any of that. The existential fear that tormented my young heart was: “What if he can’t understand Jon Stewart? Our relationship is doomed!!!”

American satire was so important in my family, to my sense of self and of humor, that The Daily Show became a litmus test for my friends and lovers. Liking Jon Stewart was a sign that someone shared my American values: absolute free speech, informed skepticism, talking truth to power, standing up for the rights of women, minorities, LGBT folks, and the “little guy”–yet not above making Arby’s diarrhea jokes, covering “cooter racing,” or shooting a segment from the point of view of Ed Helms’ balls. I couldn’t imagine spending my life with someone who couldn’t watch Jon Stewart and laugh with me every night before bed.

Cultural differences aside, we got married in 2010 and moved to New York. And there came a day in 2011 when my husband laughed out loud at The Daily Show without me having to translate a joke into French or explain some cultural eccentricity first. I believe it was Jon’s impression of Senator Mitch McConnell as the Looney Toons Turtle. Pretty soon, my husband was eagerly awaiting Jon’s coverage of the Arab Spring, the 2011 Wisconsin State Capital protests, Hurricane Sandy, and Aasif Mandvi’s hilarious reports on race and religion in America. When Jon Stewart took time off to make Rosewater and appeared on Bassem Youssef’s Egyptian Daily Show, Al-Bernameg, it was my husband’s turn to translate for me.

This past February, my husband was studying for his U.S. Citizenship & Naturalization exam. Quizzing him from the study guide, I asked: “Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?” He replied without missing a beat: “Orange Face! John Boehner! And the majority leader of the Senate is McConnell, the Turtle-Man.” There really is no better American civics education, nor a better test of American cultural fluency, than The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I no longer worry about our compatibility as a couple, culturally or comedically.

So in lieu of sweeping commentary about the end of an era or this wider cultural moment, let me just end with a personal thank you from an anonymous fan.

Jon Stewart, please meet me at camera three:

Thank you, Jon, for being part of my political and comic education dating back to the first presidential campaign I closely followed, Indecision 2000, for making my father laugh so hard every night he spit out his toothpaste, and for showing my Algerian husband the true meaning of free speech in a free society. Even when our leaders abused power or failed to live up to our ideals, you were there to pull back the veil on the hypocrisy, the propaganda, and the chronic tools of oppression used by regimes the world over.  Just by bearing witness and poking fun, you remind me and my husband that America’s strength lies in the voices of its people and in the ability of sane, rational people to see each other’s humanity. Other jesters may come and go, but none will hold court like you, Jon Stewart.

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