Ridiculous Fungi: A List

Some of the most preposterous mushrooms I've encountered, as well as a few I haven't.

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Fungi that I take personally

  1. Cortinarius traganus. Bright purple. Smells like pears. Inedible. I once drove two hours to a national forest, stepped out of my car, and found myself surrounded by a tremendous number of unidentified purple mushrooms that smelled like pears, under which circumstances I think most people would question their (1) sanity and (2) sobriety.

  2. Clitocybe odora. It’s a lurid greenish turquoise-y (term of art, folks) color, smells like anise, and transforms your $6 bottle of cooking brandy into a $9 bottle of anisette, which works great in pizza dolce. During the month I was soaking said toadstools in said brandy, a colleague asked me jestingly what my spirit mushroom was. I do believe I will never top that answer.

  3. Marasmius alliaceus. A delicate wee thing, shorter than your thumb, with a stalk like a bit of black thread and a smell like getting slugged with a baseball bat made of garlic.

  4. Hydnellum peckii, or that nightmare you had three weeks ago and forgot about until now. Common name: strawberries and cream. I’m not sure which sick mind decided that, but my money’s on Stephen King.

  5. Gomphus clavatus, or pig’s ear. Technically edible. Whoever gave it the second name of violet chanterelle was trying very hard to sell these, which I imagine only works once. This is the one mushroom I’ve tasted after cooking and immediately dumped in the trash. (See third recipe.) The best thing that can be said about it, alimentarily, is that the worms have usually left the premises by the time you pick it. It is, however, beautiful. It is also endangered, which would have been nice to know a little sooner.

  6. Russula xerampelina, the shrimp russula or crab brittlegill. It’s edible, smells strongly like shrimp, and explodes when thrown at a tree, which is in fact a recommended method of Russula identification. You’d think that between the smell, the exploding, and the name “crab brittlegill,” this mushroom is plenty ridiculous. But it turns out that you also need to bite off a tiny bit of each mushroom to taste whether it’s spicy (indicating a different, inedible lookalike) and spit out and discard if so. After nibbling the edge of every specimen in a basketful, with much spitting of peppery bits, I deeply resent this mushroom.

Fungi that I haven’t met (yet)

  1. Phallus impudicus, or the common stinkhorn. (The difference between the Latin and English names is tragic.) Grows out of a witch’s egg. Rubbed on bulls before bullfights. Edible raw when young, with a taste like radishes. Smells like death. Used in love potions. Possibly symbiotic with badgers. I made none of this up.

  2. Microglossum viride, or the green earth tongue. This is just wrong. Everything about this is wrong. I object to its existence and would like to complain to management.

  3. Clathrus archeri, or the octopus stinkhorn. Everything I said about M. viride applies. Native to Australia, because of course it is. Arrived in California in the 1970s along with polyester leisure suits and macrame plant hangers, though apparently only Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties are presently affected. It remains unclear whether it’s edible at maturity, since people who try wind up vomiting from the smell.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.

The next essay, for paid subscribers, will be on transactional analysis and its uses in writing.

On Shame

Content warning: graphic descriptions of historical violence

I began this essay on May 4, when Ida B. Wells received a much-deserved posthumous Pulitzer, then set it down and could not pick it up again until now.

Much of the ugliness of history, indeed much of the ugliness of everyday interactions, seems driven by the desire to disown and displace both individual and societal feelings of shame. (Fear is the other demon, better known.) The adamant refusal to look at oneself, to identify and explore one’s darkest feelings without acting on them—the terror of recognizing oneself as other than good—the terror of recognizing oneself—has led and still leads to tremendous violence.

In John 8:3-11, scribes and Pharisees drag a woman to Jesus and ask His permission to stone her to death for adultery. Christ responds: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And of course no one can.

What leads a wealthy, educated, and respected man, as these men were, to wish to bash open a woman’s skull with a rock and his bare hands (or chant “lock her up”)?

Is it the private knowledge that his own behaviors are as deserving of death as hers?

Is it the fear of losing one’s public perception as good and lawful, and the status that comes therewith, should the truth become known?

Or is it the drunkenness of power?

Does it matter?

From the 1880s through the 1950s, white America burned, hanged, mutilated, and tortured thousands of bodies that were defined as not white. Children. Adults. Women. Men. These bodies were Black in the majority, though they included Latinos, Chinese, and American Indians, particularly on the West Coast and in the Southwest.

Well-bred white Americans threw parties for these lynchings. They specially commissioned trains for tens of thousands of other white people, dressed up in their Sunday best, brought their children, and spread out picnics and ate dainty sandwiches and drank lemonade as they watched a man or a boy being burned alive, stabbed, shot, or hanged, sometimes all at once. They cheered. Then they snapped off burnt toes and teeth as souvenirs and bought postcards printed and sold by enterprising photographers to commemorate the occasion. James Allen’s Without Sanctuary, a scholarly collection of those fifteen-cent souvenir postcards, makes for very dark reading. There is no attempt to obscure faces; arrests are never made. White children stand unconcernedly under hanging Black bodies while their parents point proudly.

Some of those white children are still alive today.

In 1962, the military veteran James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi as a freshman and its first Black student. 30,000 National Guardsmen and military were ultimately required to control the violent mob of 3,000 whites that, along with the Governor of Mississippi, tried to prevent Meredith from doing so, by murder if necessary. Despite harassment and isolation, Meredith completed his degree. In this decade, for comparison, Yale and Princeton admitted one in three students, or one in two legacies; it was not difficult to get into the country’s most selective universities if one was white.

Sixty years later, one found oceans of white college students disparaging the academic merit of their Black classmates and complaining about the unfairness of affirmative action—at least at Princeton, where I was, and where overwhelmingly white legacy admits are still admitted at a rate of over 30%, compared to 5% for the general applicant population.

Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility documents the impossibility of speaking about race with white people in the twenty-first (frankly, any) century without their lashing out, without retaliation, without losing your job or risking violence. She observes that the vast majority of white people define themselves as good and cannot bear the shame of either individual or societal accountability for their actions, because they have not developed the psychological endurance to have uncomfortable conversations about race.

For the rest of us, who were not permitted the illusion of default goodness or innocence for long, this is hardly news, but the book’s popularity among white readers suggests a first step toward the self awareness necessary for any true relationship.

I think it no coincidence that white supremacy and Nazism are resurgent at a time when the less powerful are speaking truth and exercising power. It’s easier to project one’s shame and feelings of inferiority onto other people than to grapple with those feelings honestly and upon the common ground of shared humanity. And this is a difficulty that transcends race, religion, country, time: this psychological self-seduction manifests as anti-Black violence in the US but as violence toward Muslims in India and China, as abusive parenting and domestic violence around the globe, as misogyny, as self-righteousness, as revenge.*

Racism, after all, was only invented recently to justify the preservation of America’s billion-dollar economic engine of slavery despite white leaders’ proclamation of a new dawn of “liberty.”** Racism can be dismantled—it must be—but another easy rationalization of violence and power will replace it unless we all become willing to see and confess our own shame, our complicity, our common sinfulness—personal, national, and historical—and to ask forgiveness.

In so doing, we become able to extend grace to each other.

And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.

* Caveat: evil also exists, and many who abuse power feel no shame. But these are a minority of the population.

** Digression: The central myth of the Enlightenment, that [white, male] humans are rational actors who make decisions based on rational and conscious thought [and that women and people of color are inferior and irrational and thus conveniently deserving of the subjugation already applied to them], has been largely destroyed by neuroscience. Research suggests that decision-making is unconscious (Soon et al. 2008), emotional, and retroactively rationalized (Jarcho et al 2010), and that our brain is wired to provide an instantaneous, plausible, and inaccurate rationalization for the actions that we take (Gazzaniga 1998). But in an ironic application of this unconscious, emotional, and rationalized decision-making, this myth continues to seduce the groups who invented it, leading to this century’s Pierrot, found on every street corner: the unintelligent man who proclaims himself “very rational.”

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mall

At 3:15 pm today, after weeks of packing, spraying, scrubbing, and scouring until my knuckles swelled and my fingertips cracked, I turned in a bag of keys to my apartment manager. She told me to be careful, that a protest was happening at the nearby park at 4pm, and that she was afraid and wanted to go home. She’s a lovely, joyful person and a single mother. She was the only person working in the office that afternoon.

Bellevue, Washington is a famously bland and boring city, ranked second safest in the US when I first moved there. It’s a tech and video game hub where Microsoft wives fling hot coffee at their Starbucks barista and dump tags-on designer clothes at the local Goodwill; where hotpot joints spring up like dandelions; and where a family of artisans runs a gem of a clock repair shop next to a Ukranian grocery and an Afghan restaurant. I’m also no stranger to protests; I had folded and packed my own painted banners from past marches in Seattle. So I shrugged off her words, wished her well, and drove away.

Less than an hour later, flashbang grenades and tear gas hit the street a block from where I had lived.

I watched a news broadcast[1] of people running in and out of Bellevue Square Mall with bags and parkas in their arms, of store windows smashed, of white protesters yelling at black policemen, of determined young black women holding signs and saying their piece. The blonde reporter’s disgust was palpable. Later, a police spokeswoman described the looting as premeditated, planned by an out-of-town gang the night before, though I suspect social contagion swept up some restless teenagers as well.

Setting the particulars of the situation aside, with compassion for the protestors who live with injustice and violence, the residents living above and beside the shopping centers, the security guards who were injured, the retail workers who’ll have to clean up afterwards—what struck me was that this was by no means the first or worst time the location had been looted. The land that Bellevue Square Mall stands on was looted from the Duwamish tribe with the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855 and distributed for free in 320-acre parcels to any white male settler who asked. In the 1890s, after loggers cleared the trees, Japanese immigrants leased the land, dug up the stumps, and planted miles of strawberry farms. By the 1930s, Japanese farms were the source of most of the region’s produce.[2]

In 1916, a white businessman and newspaper owner, Miller Freeman, founded the Anti-Japanese League of Washington in 1916. He lobbied for an end to Japanese immigration and for a ban on Asian landownership in the 1920s and for Japanese internment in the 1940s and won on all counts. By 1942, the 60 Japanese-American farming families in Bellevue were forced from their land and into internment camps. Most of them had to sell for cheap. Having helped push them out, Miller Freeman then developed the former farmland into a bustling town. His son, Kemper Freeman, built Bellevue Square Mall in 1946.

Now his grandson, Kemper Freeman, Jr., owns Bellevue Square Mall and the ritzy Lincoln Square and Bellevue Place adjacent to the mall, occasionally tries to buy City Council, and donates to Trump. He also donates millions to the Bellevue Arts Museum, a jewelbox of a place. When Bellevue held the Bellwether arts fair in 2019, city officials pressured two artists and a curator into removing or reducing references to the Freeman family and the city’s history.[3]

Arrests were made during the riots. More arrests will be made. The law will be served. Without judgment, which is not mine to make, I only observe that there are thefts that are lawful because laws were created to enable theft, that the question of justice is separate from the question of law, and that we have in many ways lacked justice, though we have not lacked the law, for a very long time.

[1] KOMO News, of the Sinclair broadcasting group—Sinclair’s now the country’s largest broadcaster due to buying up local stations, and has a penchant for conservative propaganda.

[2] Alia Marsha in the Seattle Globalist. Much of the information in this essay is drawn from this article and the next, which themselves draw on David Neiwert’s Strawberry Days.

[3] Margo Vansynghei in Crosscut.

Timey wimey churchy wurchy

Last week was the orange silk of highway poppies; today was the cottonwood, blowing fairy-fine through the air. If the strangeness of the present has spun time into long loops, it has also collapsed space upon itself. I attended Mass this morning at a parish in Baltimore, followed by a Protestant service in Everett, Washington, both new to me.

I am church-hunting, as folks at work would say, which is a delightful phrase: I imagine hiding in a blind of reeds in one’s Sunday best, making churchy noises or else staying very quiet, and bagging the first likely-looking specimen that wanders along. One hopes it is plump, or at least not old and gamey. One could mount the steeple, or a stained-glass window, above the fireplace. Guests would remark on it. “Oh, that old thing?” one would say. “I shot it one night on the Serengeti, right as it was about to eat one of the guides. Fierce-looking church, isn’t it?”

I have had the pleasure and honor of meeting folks who love God deeply and pursue His mystery everywhere I have walked in the world, from Baltimore to Prague to Nairobi, and I know that this love is independent of affiliation, priest, pastor, denomination. There is a striking look or word that I have come to recognize (though it is different every time, and I do not always see it immediately) that says one has been touched in that way, angel-hand-on-Jacob’s-hip—that one has willingly given up something as dear as life, or even given up one’s life, or one’s identity (Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel), to receive something better.

(Or as Daniel Mallory Ortberg tells the story: “You changed my name for the rest of my life and I get to name a rock?”)

I thought I had already willingly given to God everything that could be given, some of which was returned transformed, some of which was necessarily removed, some of which is still being held in trust. It is deliciously ironic to realize I had not, in fact, given everything—that there was one thing remaining that He had not asked from me—and that was the church I met with.

In some ways this departure has been four years in the making; in some ways twenty years. But the way a rose springs open overnight, and you do not know when or how, whether one petal at a time or all at once, there was a moment, a week and a day ago, when the word that arose in me was Get up and go.

So I shouldered my crossbow, carved and painted a decoy, whistled up some retrievers, and sploshed into the swamp.

I can hear the churches loud around me, though I can’t see more than one or two at once.

Hebrews 11:8 - By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.

Heck if I know where I’m going. But I’m going.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s Something That May Shock and Discredit You, a tongue-in-cheek narrative of transmasculinity and church-leaving, was a comforting and devastating book to have at this time. His newsletter is The Shatner Chatner.

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