(Raymond) Carver’s Delight, as Eaten by Our Dog Zoe

I’ve been reading Raymond Carver for years, having first discovered him as an undergraduate English major at UCLA. But it was not his short stories I first read, but his poems in A New Path to the Waterfall (1989).

I had a poetry class from the great professor, Cal Bedient.  It changed my life, that class, but not only because of the poetry I read.  In that class, I followed the rabbit down into Carver Country and the world of his short stories.

Here, a great food scene from Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”, that famous story about a blind guy coming over for dinner, a story you’ve probably read (and if not, you know what to do):

“We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was no tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed the table. We were into serious eating.”

Yes, “Cathedral” is many things, and it is also a Significant Food story. But more about Raymond Carver and his use of food later.

For now, I offer you our dog, Zoe, and am inspired once again. So, without further ado, and because Carver hated tricks*, I present you with Zoe scarfing down her Carver’s Delight:

Carver's Delight

Yes, that’s right, she also has a salmon nigiri “stuffed animal.”  That’s how she, uh, rolls.

* In writing, he meant; no tricks in writing.  He said nothing of photography.

Our Small-handed Emperor trump Has No Clothes: An Updated Fable

A note: This is satire. Obviously. This is satire because no real president could be as bad as donald j. trump, or whatever he calls himself these days.

“There’s a sucker born every minute”— attributed to P.T. Barnum, though this attribution, too, may be part of the con

“America is living through a fractured fairy tale, in the grip of a lonely and uninformed mad king, an arrogant and naïve princeling, a comely but complicit blond princess and a dyspeptic, dystopian troll under the bridge.”
— Maureen Dowd

“He is thus the all-time record-holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.”— David Brooks

“[trump’s] Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale lie”— with apologies to Hans Christian Andersen, who said this, if updated, and who also wrote something like the following story

In our present, troubled times there was an Emperor — “President” he pleaded to be called, in tweet and facebook post — so exceedingly fond of cavernous clothes and long ties that, for some reason we can only guess, they pointed right down to the zipper on his pants. This, even though he spent his money on nothing but the finest clothing, especially for golfing. Not since the enormous William Howard Taft has there been such a carriage on a president, even a so-called one, yet this was odd because this emperor is also a sexist, bigoted jerk, who boasts of grabbing women by the pussy without their consent. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, and patted his Marine guard on the back with two hands, while forced to stand at attention. To this emperor, all his duties were like going to the theatre, sitting on the ceramic gold throne, or going for a ride in the Queen of England’s carriage, or driving a golf cart to keep up with the other NATO leaders, all to show off his new clothes. He wouldn’t even visit our friends the Brits unless they guaranteed him a high school-style pep rally. He had a gigantic coat and the longest ties for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The King’s in council,” here they always said: “The Emperor’s in his dressing room.”

Read the entire fable, updated for our new era, at Medium.com:

Visit Emperor trump without clothes-Click Here

16425937_10155092214331495_2682459448952576007_n

In the Basement: On Teaching in China While a Fellow American Goes on a Murderous Homophobic Rampage Back Home, Thus Shocking the World

Or not.

Turns out many people over here, in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (a province of China and not the country sometimes here referred to as Outer Mongolia) hadn’t heard immediately about the Orlando slaughter, some only when I tell them. I should be fair. People here might not think much of it, since killing each other violently, usually with guns and often en masse, is just one of the things we Americans lead the world in.

I’m teaching “Introduction to Fiction” in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China.

I first wrote this in the days following the attack, sitting alone in my hotel room on the other side of the world.  I’m posting it a year later for the first time, largely unchanged.

I hear the news about the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, alone in my hotel room, waiting for internet pages to slowly load, already feeling disconnected from my people back home.  Though there are ways to connect to Facebook in China, I’m happy to be away from it while here.

Or, I was.

True, I cannot escape its lure completely, and amuse myself by Instagramming a series of photographs I’m calling, “Scenes from a Hotel.” To channel a current insidious and omnipresent muse, I say to myself, “Believe me, I take the best scenes-from-a-hotel photographs. Everyone tells me so.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 3.24.51 PM

Or, maybe they don’t. I’m not on Facebook, you know.

At first, pictures of oddly colored, sad looking hotel chairs’re fun to post. This now feels stupid.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 3.25.07 PM

I talk about Orlando the day after at school, but fellow professors haven’t heard of it.

What?!

That takes the shine off of the ol’ American Exceptionalist in me, boy-o. I say something trite: “Oh, well, it is sad.”

In America, everyone will be discussing it on social media. Except me.

I try to connect Orlando to our story, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk from Omelas”.

The first ten rows of students, those paying attention, haven’t heard of the latest from Orlando. Most of the rest of the 108 students, a lucky number I am told, wait patiently for me to explain the connection. I decide not to try, as the English language struggle these first-year university students are having with the story’s meaning is enough for us this day.

But I have an epiphany of sorts, one of those things I teach the students about, à la James Joyce.

In the flash of a beautiful Hohhot summer lightning storm, or, more properly, in the flash of a firefly, Nadine Gordimer explains it: “Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment.”(3)

“Yes, that will be on the test,” I tell the students.

Le Guin’s story is about the beautiful, fantastic city of Omelas. It’s the Festival of Summer. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s going to the Green Fields, serenaded by bells and flutes. The narrator struggles to explain: “Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?”(4)

The narrator explains that “… to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” is not acceptable. For—and here I discuss “utopia” and “dystopia” with the students—somewhere in an Omelas basement lives a “feeble-minded” youth:

Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops.

Then, the kicker.

Everyone in Omelas knows about this basement.

But, were the child set free, they believe, “…in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.”

Some from Omelas can’t handle that. I act out the story’s ending. Disgusted to learn their society’s happiness depends on the basement child, I explain, some walk away (cue my giant strides across the dais) and never look back (I exit the classroom, slamming the door behind me).

Notably, walking away doesn’t help the youth. Righteousness doesn’t equal helpfulness.

Most people in Omelas, however, stay. They “be” happy, attend festivals, dance.

Orlando shakes me more than other recent senseless, hate-filled American mass murders. Because I am alone, far away? Or, because I know that this not-atypical violent American male will be immediately turned into our stereotypical terrorist, the Other.

But he was an American. Still is. And he went straight for the basement, attacking some of our society’s most othered. We cannot allow ourselves to avoid, again, this part of the killing. But we will. We always do. The NRA and their bought-off politicians, among others, demand this fealty of us. And mostly we oblige.

Multiple college students are killed at Pulse nightclub, a kind of “sanctuary,”(5) including seven from Valencia College.(6) Schools in the area engage.(7)

It is a long struggle, emptying this basement we’ve built over many years.

Fallout begins. Doubling down. Avoidance.

Ohio State pulls their mascot from the Columbus Gay Pride parade.(8) In Texas, home to the nation’s second highest public undergraduate student population, Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick publishes a “reap what you sow” tweet (now retracted).(9) Days after the shooting, House Republicans block a non-discrimination proposal for federal contractors, because of sexual orientation and gender identification language.(10) Senator John McCain claims (then retracts) President Obama is “directly responsible” for the attack.(11) The AMA declares gun violence a “public health crisis”, but Congress continues to block gun violence research.(12)

The Orlando murderer is many things, simultaneously. A wannabe ISIS terrorist, sure, but he’s also just one more in a long line of hateful, insecure American males so enraged by an Other that he needed to murder and destroy.

We are even now learning that he may also have lived in this basement we keep.(13)

In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, we learn that “No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make others believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high.”(14)

I am filled with rage, too. At the carnage, yes. But also because I know that right now, across the Pacific, many, employing the same tired arguments, pretend this act is somehow un-American.

By second-classing our fellow LGBTQIA* citizens in a culture of toxic masculinity (choose your parameters or your statistics, but we all know modern mass killings usually involve male perpetrators) and a ready access to military-grade weapons, we spawned this latest killer.

It’s complicated and difficult, true. Congressman Jim Himes is right: “All I know is that regular moments of silence on the House floor do not honor the victims of violence. They are an affront.”(15)

Action is needed. Yesterday. But it looks like even this latest outrage can’t move the Senate to make even the smallest movement on our gun laws, so powerful is the gun lobby.(16)

In the meantime, I have 108 thesis statements that aren’t going to grade themselves. Tomorrow, in class, I’m going to again try to connect Le Guin’s story to Orlando for the students. I can’t just walk away, as in Omelas. I can’t accept the basement we allow to fester in our country, bringing us all down, killing some of us.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 3.24.32 PM

NOTES.

On acting out stories. I learned so much of what I know about acting out stories in class, both for myself and what I ask of my students, from my colleagues and friends David Hlavsa (Theatre professor, Saint Martin’s University, Lacey, Washington State) and Nadezhda Krylova (English professor, Petrozavodsk State University, Russia).

Also. You may have noticed that in the last year, we elected with a minority of votes a new president. Thus, everything related to this story and these issues is now exponentially worse. trump’s tweet of this anniversary is a study in pretend caring, but is largely avoidance.  No mention of any action he might take to address this situation; no mention of the LGBTQIA*.  For a man so obsessed with terrorists, he makes it very clear, both in this tweet and throughout his presidency, that it is only a certain kind of terrorism that holds any interest for him. Everyone else be damned. Continue reading

Don’t Cut Funding for Fulbright

I am spending part of this Memorial Day writing to my federal reps: Washington State Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantrell; Representative Denny Heck.

I am asking them to protect the budget for the Fulbright program, intimating also in my letter that the budgets of many other worthy programs should be maintained (or even increased) going forward.

I was fortunate to go on Fulbright in 2013, to Petrozavodsk, Russia.  I taught at Petrozavodsk State University, and learned more than I could have ever taught.

In short, donald trump’s crass and damaging whims should be resisted at every turn.  He wants only to redistribute more tax money to the wealthy; increase funding for the military, already the biggest in the world; and to self-aggrandize, and further enrich, his own person (and family) and “legacy”.

So, this Memorial Day I am spending my time trying to reduce the amount of memorials we need to have (or, choose to have, as in the Iraq War, for example) in the future.

What will you write your reps about?  Let me know, if you have a few extra moments.

Russian grade schoolers asking the American

Russian grade schoolers asking the American. This kid had the best question ever: “Do you like to jump?” I’ve never been asked that in the U.S.

Here is the text in my letter (I sent it to both addresses, local and D.C., of my three reps):

May 29, 2016

RE: Maintaining (and perhaps increasing) Fulbright Program Funding

Dear Representative Denny Heck,

As a 2013 Fulbright Scholar (Petrozavodsk State University, Russia) and current campus Fulbright Faculty Liaison, I am writing to you quickly and briefly yet about an urgent manner: we must maintain, and even seek to increase, funding for all Fulbright and Fulbright-related programs.

I am worried for our country. As you no doubt keenly understand, we have a willfully ignorant, sexist, racist, egomaniacal, and self-aggrandizing president in office now. And this president has made it painfully clear that he intends to strip funding from many good programs—including, I suspect, the Fulbright, which is near and dear to my heart—in order to finance his two great projects: the military, which is already the best and largest in the world, and redistributing the people’s tax money upwards to the wealthy.

Certainly, all programs should be open to scrutiny, with funding adjusted as necessary. But this president considers nuance and using his intellect to explore complicated issues to be beneath him. And he is obviously uninterested in the good such programs can do. Rather, he wants only to slash and burn.

As such, I urge you to resist this president’s dangerous predilections on all fronts, and this effort begins with the budget you and your colleagues are currently debating.

I have many stories and reasons as to why the historic, 70-year old Fulbright program remains relevant in a post-9/11 era, and am happy to discuss these further should you find this helpful.

In the meantime, I thank you for your urgent attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Jeff Birkenstein, Ph.D.

Letters

Letters are still better than e-communication, they tell us.

 

First blog post & pancakes

Three things, perhaps not unrelated.

1) Today, I’m writing a book review for the journal Food, Culture & Society (published by the Assoc. for the Study of Food and Society, ASFS) on Toni Tipton-Martin’s wonderful book The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.

John Egerton writes in his Foreword about who Aunt Jemima is and why:

She had to be humorous, stout, lighthearted, illiterately magical–stern enough to control the children without threatening them, dependable and loyal enough to assure mothers that the kitchen was in good hands, asexual enough to foreclose any wayward thoughts among the men of the house. (xi)

In other words, she is a racist construct meant to sell pancake mix.

Quaker Oats explains the racist history of Aunt Jemima brand products, though they don’t know they are being racist (1930s):

15621990_10154948305121495_4705899570745065023_n
Source: Toni Tipton-Martin, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015), xvi.

2) Also, I realized this morning that I’ve been making pancakes all wrong. My Mom made me blueberry pancakes this very morning and she does not use a nonstick pan.  She says this is why they are so delightfully crispy.

I will never use a nonstick pan again for pancakes. I tried to take a picture of the delicious flat round cakes, but I wasn’t fast enough.

15589803_10154948305191495_961555958029674301_n
3) Also, this is my first new new blog post.  I hope you’ll come back some time, maybe drop me a comment.  My topic?  Oh, that’s simple.  Argumentation and Appreciation. Food, Travel, Politics, Academia, and the Short Story.

That should be enough.  For now.

No fare required; free for the reading and arguing.