Protecting Calvin Trillin

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02:  The New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin attends the 2010 New Yorker Festival at Le Poisson Rouge on Octo
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02: The New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin attends the 2010 New Yorker Festival at Le Poisson Rouge on October 2, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Joe Kohen/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Is it a point of pride for Calvin Trillin that he went to college with my father? Probably not. Richard Spark, though, was quite aware of his Yale classmate, of all that Trillin had published over the years: the books, the articles in The New Yorker. Our family was particularly attuned to Killings, one chapter of which took place in our small town of Westwood, Massachusetts. And we paid special attention to Remembering Denny, because it concerned a college classmate of Trillin's, who I don't think my father knew. But my father got the point of the book. Denny committed suicide, presumably, because his homosexuality was such a painful weight. In another generation, it would not been so. Calvin Trillin got that. He was sensitive enough to get that. Which is why the whole dust-up about Calvin Trillin's recent poem about Chinese food in The New Yorker bothers me. If you haven't followed the story, here it is. Trillin wrote a piece in the April 4 issue of the magazine that was supposed to be a send up (Trillin reports in an email to The Guardian) of "food-obsessed bourgeoisie."

The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet? If they haven't, we've reason to fret. Long ago, there was just Cantonese. (Long ago, we were easy to please.) But then food from Szechuan came our way, Making Cantonese strictly passé

It goes on to talk about the various Chinese food provinces whose cuisines have been considered most prized in our culture. After Szechuan, Hunan, and then (this is news to me, but then I live in Maine) Fukien.

The poem seems dumb to me in the way my grandfather's doggerel used to seem dumb. My grandfather was so proud of his cleverness, and as someone who could never come up with a rhyme, bad or not, I did admire the achievement. It was just a groan-inducing achievement. For me, Trillin's poem falls in that camp, and as such, I can't help but feel sorry for him, in the same way I felt sorry for my grandfather, as I pretend-laughed at his efforts. I am only 53, but I am a college professor, so frequently around the 18 to 22 set. Plus I am a mother of a 16-year-old, so I know how hard it is to be old, how embarrassing it is simply not to get it. It being what the younger generation knows.

The younger generation knows that Trillin's poem is liable to offend.

Does Trillin's poem mean he is a racist? No, of course not. Is he oblivious? Yes, indeedy, so why not simply point that out and in a potentially educational way? Why go on the attack, labeling him (as people have in the Twitter dust-up over his poem) as someone who is complaining that there are too many different kinds of Chinese people? Oh, please. I feel protective, in part, because of my Dad, six years dead and easily capable not of this poem but of completely not getting it.

One of my strongest college memories is of coming home and considering my father's large stack of a certain American photography magazine. He loved that magazine, as he loved photography and writing, both the road not travelled and part, no doubt, of his focus on Trillin, who did, in fact, do, what my father might have liked to do, instead of becoming a physician. I said I liked the magazine, too, but I thought it was sort of sexist.

"What are you talking about?" he said, annoyed.

"Well, look at the covers," I said. "They are all of women."

"There's nothing wrong with a portrait of a woman," he said.

True enough, I allowed, but there were a lot of things you could take pictures of. Women just one of the many things. He kept protesting, and I grew angry. I pulled the stack of magazines from the bookcase and started flipping the magazines into a pile. "Look at this, look at this," I said, as I tossed all the covers with a woman (and always a sexy woman) on one pile, and the handful of covers that had something else on another. Essentially all the covers were of sexy women.

"Well, what's wrong with that?" he said, still defensive. There was nothing wrong with a cover with a pretty woman.

"How would you like this to be me in this picture?" I held up a picture that any father would object to, if it were his daughter, super-sexualized. "Or this? Imagine me as this," I said, which was obviously impossibly discomfiting. Though I can't call up the actual image, I can imagine it: woman with breasts accentuated, legs long and basically bare, not a lot of clothes on. I kept on holding up the magazines. Would he like me in this outfit? Or this?

For my twin sister and me, it is a historic conversation, because my father never backed down.

I loved my Dad. I venerated him. He was smart and funny. When he died, former medical students or patients of his emailed to say that he was brilliant or that he saved their lives. And yet he fundamentally did not get it. He did not get the way the world had changed. He did not understand my anger that night. He really, really couldn't see, and what he got that night was me, incensed, but still loving, trying to make him see what he didn't see.

In all the attacks on Trillin, I see the unbearable American tendency to rage, the mainstay of this election, no matter what your political allegiances. Why not say, gently, "I think you fail to see why this might bother people. Let me explain." I also see some age-ism. In the same way that I realize that I simply do not get my son's reference points vis-à-vis (for instance) violence in the media and video games -- I literally cannot process it -- Trillin doesn't get something crucial here. What he needs is not someone telling him what a close-minded idiot he is -- for he is neither idiot, nor close-minded. He is just 80 years old, a minority group himself. He is someone who needs some assistance in negotiating a world that has clearly moved fast beyond his understanding. And I know this, because the world has moved fast beyond my understanding, and I am much younger. Is someone to blame here? Absolutely. The New Yorker. They should never have run the poem. When they rejected it, they had a chance to tell him what was wrong with it. Would he have been receptive? Perhaps yes, perhaps no (like my father). In the end, I feel embarrassed for and protective of Trillin, who is clearly (he's written volumes of pages that prove this) a good guy. I wish someone at the magazine, or in the Twitter-sphere, cared for him as much as a daughter would. I wish someone would have looked after his interests.