My mood has been a little down lately—family health struggles, no news yet on the book front, rising fascism in this country and around the world, and other calamities I don’t have the heart to enumerate—so I haven’t much felt like composing one of these notes. But there have been some bright spots—things to watch and read and see—that I’ve been collecting to share. And here they are.
Watch JURY DUTY on Amazon FreeVee. This is the best TV I’ve watched in a very long time, and I have recommended it to a dozen friends all of whom have loved it. It’s funny and deeply kind.
Check out this piece about Armenia’s vibrant new fine wine and dining scene in Food & Wine.
Read about Harout Bastajian, a Lebanese-Armenian artist renowned for painting domes in mosques around the world. He volunteered to paint a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, and years later when he fell on hard times in Beirut, the local community helped him relocate to Michigan.
It’s not quite spring, but the crocuses have bloomed, and the daffodils are starting to show their sunny faces. It always feels like a small miracle to me when winter recedes and the trees start to bud, and this year’s flowers that bloom in a predictable series have lifted my mood.
We are packing up our apartment so the walls can be painted and the floors refinished—this hasn’t been done since we moved in eighteen years ago. I’m in a chaos of boxes with walls sadly denuded of all paintings, photos, and posters, and we will be decamping to Los Angeles for two weeks while the work is done. James is on the Writers Guild negotiating committee—their contract expires on May 1—and while we are in L.A., he will be in a hotel conference room from 9 to 5 every day trying to hammer out a deal. I plan to be working on an essay entitled “His Driving Life” about my father’s relationship to motor vehicles, starting with the Lincoln Market delivery truck that he drove at the age of nine when he could barely see over the steering wheel.
Our daughter Djuna, who as a second-year law student at NYU is working with the Racial Justice Clinic, learned two weeks ago that her first client has been granted parole. Upon hearing this wonderful news, I sent Djuna this quotation from prison abolitionist, organizer, writer, and librarian Mariame Kaba:
“I’ve said this to younger organizers and will repeat it here. To be involved in helping to free someone from the clutches of death making institutions is a profound and life altering experience. It’s a miracle. Make sure you take that in and then continue to fight for others. People say ‘well look at all of the effort it took to get one person out.’ And my response is ‘YES and it’s worth all of the effort. Keep going.’”
Djuna and her friend Will visited David twice a month at Fishkill Prison to help him prepare for his parole hearing, and they are now raising funds for him in advance of his imminent release.
Another bright note is that the anthology WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN has just gone back for another print run because the sales of the first edition have been so strong. This week the anthology was included in a New York Times roundup of newly published books. Columbia’s Armenian Center is hosting a panel discussion on April 3—the anthology’s editor Aram Mrjoian will be in conversation with contributors Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, Hrag Vartanian, and yours truly. If you’re in the New York area, it would be lovely to see you there.
Winter is upon us, and there are far fewer mushrooms to in the woods now than there were in the late spring, summer, and autumn, but there are still fungi to find. The other day I came across a fallen oak branch that was covered in Amber Jelly Roll (Exidia Crenata), which is apparently edible, although the taste is described as bland. Today when I walked on the trails in the woods I saw lots of polypores and a few other types of mushrooms. I love the common names—Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, Birch Polypore, Tinder Polypore, Artist’s Conk, Crowded Parchment, and Witch’s Butter, to name a few that I noted on my foray. I’ve started trying to learn the Latin names as well, but that is a long-term project.
I’ve recently joined a new social media platform called Project Mushroom that was started by people who are committed to fighting for social justice and to addressing climate catastrophe. I am hoping for a viable alternative to Twitter, which is now owned by a petty and volatile right-wing billionaire. Project Mushroom is an “instance” on the Mastodon federated network, and instead of tweets the posts are called “toots,” although I hear this term is fading out because it’s a little silly and we’re just going to call them posts. What we refer to as retweets on Twitter are called boosts on Mastodon. It’s still a little lonely over there—no other Armenians, few of my organizer friends, and almost nobody I knew before I arrived. If you want an invitation to join, let me know and I’ll send you one.
It’s interesting how ubiquitous mushrooms are these days: mushrooms are to be studied, to be foraged and eaten, to be made into medicinals, to be used as metaphors for human relationships and grassroots organizing. Last year I read and loved Merlin Sheldrake’s highly entertaining Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. After reading the book I was even more enamored of mushrooms and all their amazing properties and possibilities. I perceived the forest differently, aware of the underground mycelial networks connecting the trees, as well as the dependencies between the trees and the fungi. I thought about the way that fungi decayed organic matter to make room for new life.
I love a passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Darkusing mushrooms to think about how political change occurs. She says, “After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a vast underground fungus that remains invisible and unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork—or underground work—often laid the foundation.”
Instead of perceiving ourselves as separate individuals, what if we understood ourselves to be created in and through our human networks? I notice in my psychotherapy sessions I often start with a report about how everyone in my life is doing—my kids, my spouse, my mother, my sister, her kids, my friends—because my well-being is entwined with theirs. I’m also reminded of one of the most inspiring slogans from Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign: “Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” What if that kind of solidarity is not about selflessness, but is grounded in an understanding that we are all connected and if others are suffering we ourselves can’t be truly whole?
Wishing you and yours a festive and sweet holiday season.
I have just returned to the city after ten days in the country during peak fall foliage season. The hills have been ablaze with color. This summer’s drought has given way to autumn rains, and mushrooms have been appearing on the forest floor. Each day, I walked the trails wearing my binoculars and carrying a canvas bag with my mushroom collecting tools. I selected one or two unfamiliar mushrooms during each foray to bring back to the house for identification. Exciting finds of the past week were the Indigo Milk Cap and the Lobster Mushroom. I saw a Barred Owl gliding through the forest canopy to land on a high branch, and I have been hearing the toot of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the laugh of the Pileated Woodpecker. My walks in the woods help keep me balanced in this off-kilter world.
In the middle of September, when Azerbaijan launched a military attack on Armenia, I was an emotional wreck. Apparently, Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions are not confined to Nagorno-Karabagh–it has designs on land within the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Armenia. The genocidal rhetoric of Azerbaijan’s Aliyev is well documented. A video circulated on social media showing Azerbaijani forces murdering surrendered Armenian soldiers was authenticated by numerous outlets, and this war crime was condemned by Human Rights Watch. As Russia is up to its neck with its bloody war against Ukraine, Armenia has been mostly alone facing a brutal petro-dictatorship aligned with Turkey’s Erdogan. Azerbaijan recently signed a lucrative gas deal with the European Union, which has muted the response from European leaders. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a Congressional Delegation to Armenia last month, and another U.S. Congressional Delegation is in the planning stages. At this point, Armenia needs all the friends it can get, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, and France. A ceasefire is mostly holding, and negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are ongoing, but the situation along the border is volatile and potentially explosive.
I’ve been volunteering with the Josh Riley campaign in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Please make sure you are registered to vote. We can’t let the Red Wave drown us–mainstream Democrats are an uninspired lot, but the fascist alternative is terrifying.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, this winter feels dark and long, and the spring seems far away. As usual, I look for solace in the natural world and also in my continuing study of the Armenian language. Below is a short piece that I wrote about a recent snowy morning. My Western Armenian teacher Sosy Mishoyan corrected my mistakes, but as time goes by I’m making fewer of them.
Անցեալ գիշեր ձիւն տեղաց, իսկ այս առտուն ճերմակ վերմակը ամբողջ մարգը կը ծածկէ։ Վերարկուս ու կօշիկներս կը հագնիմ եւ գլխարկս ու ձեռնոցներս կը դնեմ։ Շատ պաղ է, բայց` շատ գեղեցիկ։
Լճակին շուրջ կը պտտիմ։ Երկինքին մէջ երկու բազէ կը սաւառնի, իսկ մացառին մէջ պզտիկ թռչուններ սերմ ու հատապտուղ կը փնտռեն։ Յանկարծ ոտքերուս մօտէն դաշտամուկ մը կը վազէ ու կը մտնէ պզտիկ ձիւնէ փապուղիին մէջ։
Ձիւնէ նորէն կը սկսի թափի։ Աշխարհը ճերմակ եւ լուռ է։
In the middle of the summer our friend Jon was in the forest behind our house working on the trails. When he emerged from woods, he told us, “You have about 200 pounds of Chanterelle mushrooms back there.” I had no idea what Chanterelles looked like and had never foraged for mushrooms, so we did nothing about this potential bounty.
In September, while on a birding walk in Central Park, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since we were both graduate students at Columbia. Turns out that she also had a house in Columbia County, and when the subject of mushrooms came up, she told me she often foraged for Chanterelles. We made a date for her to come by for a walk in the woods, and on the trail she pointed out the few that remained. We sauteed them with olive oil and garlic, and they were delicious.
This was just the beginning. I bought a mushroom field guide, read several books about fungi, the best of which was Merlin Sheldrake’s fascinating Entangled Life. I watched some tutorials about mushrooms on YouTube, the most helpful of them by Yellow Elanor, also known as Rachel Zoller and who can be found on Instagram. I was excited to learn about fungi and mushrooms—after years of studying flowers and birds, it was a whole new area of the natural world to explore. Mushrooms are not in the plant kingdom, nor are they in the animal kingdom, although they are closer to animals than to plants. I was soon fascinated by the underground mycorrhizal (fungal) networks that facilitate communication between trees (see Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree for more on her groundbreaking work on this topic).
Armed with an Opinel Mushroom Knife, a jeweler’s loupe, and some waxed paper and mesh bags, I started going on solo forays in the woods. Every day I walked the trails, discovering many kinds of mushrooms, all of them interesting, some of them edible. I learned about the difference between Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, and Lenzites Betulina (Gilled Polypore), all of which look similar on the top side, but which can be distinguished by their various underside surfaces. I found tiny Cinnabar Chanterelles and slimy Yellow-Centered Waxy Caps, also known as Hygrophorus Flavodiscus.
I joined the New York Mycological Society, which was co-founded by the composer John Cage in 1962. I learned an old maxim, “There are bold foragers and old foragers, but no old, bold foragers.” I read a newspaper account about a woman in Rhode Island who had found a delicious-looking mushroom in her backyard and decided to eat it, even though she “didn’t know exactly what it was.” She ended up with a kidney transplant. After our experience with the Chanterelles, which were identified by much more knowledgeable people, I was determined that we would eat only mushrooms that I was absolutely, unequivocally sure were edible. I bought a book called How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying, and headed back into the woods.
In October, I found a patch of funnel-shaped black mushrooms at the foot of a tree near the vernal pond on the north side of our property. I knew from consulting the field guides that Black Trumpets had no poisonous look-alikes, and these were definitely Black Trumpets. We cooked and ate them and they were delightful.
Recently, I listened to a fascinating For the Wild Podcast interview with mycologist Dr. Patricia Kaishian, who discussed, among other topics, “queer mycology,” the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists (ICAM), and the war in Artsakh. Patty’s Twitter handle is queendom_fungi, evoking the idea of the non-binary and queer world of mushrooms she talked about in the interview, and I love the idea of a Magical Mushroom Queendom.
There are still mushrooms to see in the Hudson Valley in winter, but far fewer than in the more temperate seasons. In the next few months, I will be reading and studying more about fungi in preparation for spring forays. I’ll keep you posted!