The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

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A Collision of Inspiration from the Telly

I have had this note in my iPhone since August 5th, and it is the right time to go on about it.

It was a Monday, and I had the afternoon off. I had finished class that morning, my workout in the afternoon, and I was correcting assignments before my next job while a television program called “Last of the Summer Wine” was softly playing in the background—wonderful show, by the way. And, yes, I feel like an old man admitting to my liking of this show, but I have a small inclination toward British comedies.

So, the quick joke between two characters began thus:

“Do you realize how long people are buried?”

With a witty rejoinder that followed:

“The same way as short people, I imagine.” [insert artificial laughter]

The question was initially promoted with a philosophical air, but fell short where it landed in the ears of the bourgeois—who usually have little to do with philosophy. Well, it brought me to a halt.

So much so that I turned off that glowing-radioactive-entertainment-box and stared off into the distance—which, if you have not done, you should on a regular basis. That question was a very profound moment that collided tremendously with a bit of self-reevaluation that has recently surfaced in my life. Namely that once I die, I am dead forever.

State FairNow, yes, I know, “put it on a friggin’ t-shirt and shut up”. But it isn’t about life. It isn’t about living in the moment and this Carpe Diem or YOLO stuff. It was immense. It was just so profoundly quiet and immense. Perhaps because it was the day before my birthday. Perhaps it was because an important person just stepped altogether out of my life. I just don’t know.

Things haven’t really changed. I haven’t jumped out of a plane, or driven my car really fast, but something has clicked. By now, you might have surmised that I am an atheist. Go ahead, I’ll give you some time to recollect all the subtle (and not so subtle) stereotypes you can muster. Okay. I’ll proceed. I would describe myself, since announcing and embracing the whole atheism thing many years ago, as a navel-gazing atheist. I’m not one to argue or fight or push my interpretations of life onto others. No. I will wholly share my opinion if asked, but if you find God in a phone booth, a flower petal, or the death and life of a loved one, that’s cool. Just don’t treat me like I have some incurable (or curable) deficiency or disease.Light

But here’s where things alter a bit. And it’s with that day: August 5th, and all the collisions that came with it. I don’t care anymore. And I don’t know what that precisely means yet. But it feels earthy. And it feels bigger than I can grasp. And that is profoundly frustrating.

This might sound like I’m asking for support or help through a difficult period of my life, but I’m not, and yet I am. I’ll briefly explain in metaphor, lest this late-night post get too blustery:

I want something different. I want something to start. I want a push, a pull, an overflowing, a deluge, an effrontery, a chain-reaction, and I want to be beautifully ready for it. I want to embrace it. I want to be pulled under. I want to fight hard because I must. I want to sing loud because I can. I want money: to play with, to give, to have, to love, to flourish, to work for me, to buy gifts for others, to put in a paper cup of a blind man, to fill my pant pockets, to fly to India for Holi. I want knowledge to knock me over with its weight. I want friends who call and demand attention. I want my burdens to feel like gifts.

And I can only do this with the knowledge that some day I will die. And when I get off this planet, it will still spin: people will still swear, eat, f*ck, burp, run, bite their fingernails, cough loudly during a film, wake up hungover, ignore those near them for a phone call, survive terrible diseases, orgasm alone, yell “surprise!” in unison, hug their children in public, and cry from laughter.

The cool part is that all this is happening right now…

The Bird and The Conclusion: Finishing my Daughter’s Story

As is often my want on this blog, I will tell a story about parenting. My daughter is six years old and she’s pretty goofy—which is fine by me. But there is something she seems to take quite seriously: telling the Truth—with a capital “T”.

Last weekend, my daughter and I were walking home from a trip to the local park and she noticed a robin hopping around the soccer field. I identified the bird, and she started telling a story. The story began in this way:

“One time, when I was at Nana’s (her maternal grandmother), mommy opened up the door and a bird flew in. ‘Cause there’s a nest there.”

“And…” I said, in wanting of the rest of the story.

(No response)

“So, who caught it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember” she says as she follows the white grass along the soccer border.

“Well, make it up,” I added emphatically.

“But, I don’t remember!”

“Well, you have to have a conclusion. You can’t leave me guessing. You have to leave the story with the reader.”

“Okay. Mommy caught it! And Nana! And Booboo (her maternal grandfather)! And Laura (her aunt)! But that’s not what really happened,” she makes sure to add.

“Yeah, but it’s a way better story. And it has an ending.”

I was struck by this realization: not what we are all telling stories (I mention that a lot on this blog!), but that I want her to tell me a good story. And I want her to be able to tell a good story. In less colloquial terms: I want her to be an orator, an interesting person, someone who understands the essence of an action and its affect; and that’s a story.

jumpstagramThat is how we sell ourselves. That is how we wake up in the morning. That is what gets us to bed at night. What story are we telling? How are we telling it? Can we sleep because of it? Or does it keep us awake all night? Is it the one where the guy gets the girl? Is it the one where they are happy? or sad? Is it the one where the girl becomes famous? the guy fights crime? Which one? How are you justifying your life? your decisions? your thoughts?

No matter what it all begins with a single step. And then another. And then another. And then you look back, often way in the distance, and if you are lucky and someone is listening to you, then you have the privilege of saying: “One time, way back there, this happened…”

Thanks everyone for being that person listening.

“Society Must Be Defended,” by Michel Foucault

Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be DefendedLectures at the College de France, 1975-76: Society Must Be Defended by Michel Foucault

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michel Foucault’s “Lectures” series is a collection of lectures given at the College De France from 1971 to 1984. They have been recently translated and published, but for whom, that I am not quite sure.

I absolutely loved reading this particular lecture series, “Society Must Be Defended”. The major themes Foucault discusses are Race and War, and their causal relations. As an American reader, my initial interpretation of the word Race hinges on the historically motivated US interpretation: skin color. But Foucault, and most of Europe, consider Race in a different, albeit for more accurate, way. They consider Race in the terms of what I would describe as nationality. So, Race, then, is not skin color, but regional origin, national origin, etc. I have had lengthy discussions upon this cultural distinction with friends from Europe, and it has proven true each time.

Now, this fits very well into what Foucault describes as War. War is antagonism. War is power relations. War is struggle. And ultimately, War is racist. It is racist in the sense of power and subjugation, not in the Malcolm X / US / Huey Newton race war between Whites and Blacks, but in the sense of one subspecies of man establishing dominance over another subspecies of man. Foucault takes for a precondition, man-as-species. Or in Literary Theory terms: Universal Humanism. But Universal Humanism is an ideal, and it is not a reality. Beyond Humanism is man-as-species, man-as-political-body, etc. What amazing phenomenon has occurred beyond the eighteenth century is namely the classification and hierarchialization of War. But before Foucault can get to that, he must confront Clausewitz’ famous dictum: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”.

Foucault first challenges this statement by reversing it and arguing that politics is the continuation of war by other means. I will summarize this, most likely in an inaccurate manner, by stating that Foucault ultimately argues that politics hold the population in a state of perpetual war. I think of Virginia Woolf‘s essay Three Guineas, in which she criticizes the pomp and celebration of the aftermath of War, and these ritualistic measures to keep the public employed at war, while not actually, physically, being in a war. Something along the lines of the Military Industrial Complex discussion.

He then goes on to discuss and dissect how it came to be that War became the means to understanding History. Who are the major individuals who wrote History? When did it become a State functioning separation and domination of one race over another? For this, Foucault takes on Hobbes and the function of War within the building of modern France, Germany, and England.

This is all far too large a subject to cover in this little review. So, I will end it by arguing that this book is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think I may ever read it again. Reading Foucault is a special thing. His knowledge is not meant for this man sitting at a desk, wanting a paycheck, desirous of life, love, and such. It’s meant for someone distinct. Someone devoted. It’s meant for a time and place that no longer exists for me outside Academia.

I apologize for this late realization. But it is the direct reason it took me months to finish this collection. The terms “normalization” and “biopower” are absolutely essential to any theoretical argument I undertake, but they are so few and far between outside of those halls of Academia that Foucault’s relevancy is waning for me. Still, I do not hesitate in giving it five stars. So, enjoy at your leisure, but beware: the ideas and theories contained herein may cause alienation.

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