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In Memoriam

Illustration: © copyright by Tobias Tak 2017 from his book, Canciones, published by Scratchbooks, Amsterdam. Tobias transformed twenty poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca into a series of richly detailed and inventive ink drawings.
 

When friends die, it is a great sorrow. It does not matter if their death was sudden or expected, a release from pain and torment, or a peaceful passing. They are gone and the emptiness we feel is deep and long. At funerals and memorials loved ones rise to speak and tell their stories, often stories we have never heard before. We embrace other friends and partners, family members we have never met or know very well. We are all weeping.


At the turn of the New Year, two friends of mine died. I met both of them late in our lives, admired them both, and felt an abiding affection for them both. They did not know each other. One lived in New York, the other in Amsterdam and London. They were multi-talented, in the flow of their creative lives, connected and compassionate, kind and well-mannered.


I met Constance George through her dear friend, Stephanie Stone, who had once baby-sat for my daughter. I reconnected with Stephanie when I moved to Washington Heights and she introduced me to Connie. When I decided to stage—rather than read—excerpts from my book, Nomads, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Connie offered to direct and act. Stephanie also performed what I had not realized were dramatic pieces. It was a thrill to work collaboratively with both of them over several weeks. Connie's enthusiasm and professionalism were inspiring. Most of her friends did not know she was sick. In fact, the last I'd heard she was planning to travel to Berlin and work in the theater there. In my imagination, she is there, singing and dancing, writing plays, making new friends, and cherishing them.


I met Tobias Tak through my friend, Norma Cohen. She wrote from London to say he was coming to New York to visit his artist-sister, Elise, who has lived in America for a while, and it would be wonderful if we could meet; she knew we would like each other. Tobi and Elise are Dutch, the children of Holocaust survivors, as am I, so we immediately had a point of reference for our childhood memories. Tobi was an esteemed tap dancer and dance teacher --Norma had taken lessons from him—but he also wrote and illustrated graphic novels and exhibited and published his work in Holland. I had an opportunity to critique one of these books, still in draft, and make a suggestion or two. Studying the relationship of images to words was new for me, and a welcome challenge. The story was complex and evocative. What a talent! But even more importantly were the kinetic conversations I always had with Tobi, whether on email, or the telephone. We never saw each other that much, but it didn't matter. Like so many solid friendships, we always picked up where we left off. I shall miss our discussions and his life-affirming spirit.


Dear Connie, Dear Tobi, rest in peace.

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Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope

 

I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.


I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.


I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.


Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.


The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

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Catch and Kill

 

Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.

 

--Walter Cronkite

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!

 

Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," a novel published in 2004

 

In the beginning, all the world was America

John Locke

 

I've been thinking about the upcoming Harvey Weinstein criminal trial, which begins in a few days, and Ronan Farrow's riveting podcast, "Catch and Kill," based on the book of the same name, which I have not, as yet, read. I did read the New Yorker pieces upon which the book is based, and I'm impressed with Farrow, a still young, brave investigative reporter who has been "hunted," surveilled, forced to move, threatened. It took him more than two years to get the story.


His interview style is patient and kind, and he's well educated, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar; he asks incisive questions. It is no wonder that several of the eighty-seven women who were assaulted by Weinstein entrusted him with their stories. Formerly an anchor and reporter for a NBC investigative unit, Farrow's bosses at the network did not value his integrity and determination. They succumbed to pressure, a complicated story in itself, and killed the Weinstein story.


I've lamented the demise of real journalism in my blog more than once, and the struggle of determined reporters to do their work, free of prior restraint, a form of censorship unacceptable in a democracy. The firewall between the editorial departments and business departments eroded slowly over a period of years; it has now completely shredded. What we cover, what eventually is published or broadcast, depends, largely, on the demographics of the audience and the stated—and sometimes unstated—wishes of the advertisers. In many regions in the United States, one person, or one corporation, owns all the newspapers, cable, television and radio stations, an unhealthy monopoly, and though the reporters on staff are real reporters, many of the articles read like PR handouts. Equally insidious is the reliance on clickbait, a headline, article, or photograph designed to entice readers to click on a sometimes questionable hyperlink.


I often have students from China in my NYU workshop, usually the children of government officials or successful business owners. I have a prepared speech about freedom of the press in the United States, an explanation targeted particularly at them, and any other overseas students from despotic regimes. It's our mandate to get under the skin of a story, I say, and write our hearts out in a bold voice. A writer must feel absolutely free, and we are free here in America. Witness the proliferation of podcasts, print stories, editorials, online magazines, and investigative reports in recent years. That's how I begin. It's only later in the term that I talk about the censorship of the marketplace, clickbait, product placement, the presence of the publicist at the interview spinning the story, the power of advertisers and targeted social media, the new phenomena of journalists being "hunted," not jailed, thankfully, but "hunted." I was shocked when I heard Ronan Farrow use this word on the podcast and relieved that he was not hurt as he gathered the story, though he admits that he was frightened when he realized he was being followed by a private spy agency.


As editors and writers we swim upstream against these dangerous anti-democratic trends and a regime in Washington that is oblivious to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must be as courageous as Ronan Farrow and persevere.

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When Language Dies

This 1930 photo is by Walker Evans.

 

But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as  a name for what they desire any one else to do.

                                 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

 

               

It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, January 9, 1928, Berlin at a training conference for Nazi party members.

 

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

 

George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 1940

 

 

I thank George Orwell and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) for the inspiration to write a "critical" essay this morning, which hopefully will sustain my readers' interest and attention. In this sound-byte culture we are living in—and as a writer and educator—I despair at the loss of attention, curiosity, and language itself. I had wanted to write a humorous blog post this week, or to post some lovely holiday photos and mountain sunsets, which I am assured my friends will "like," but it feels impossible.


And with that preamble, I will proceed:


These past few tiresome weeks, we have been witness to an unprecedented political spectacle, aided and abetted by both the mainstream media and social media. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, or what market-driven channels we watch, we are consumers of this media, all of which delivers us to the advertisers. Books and commentary are proliferating; 45 is a media cash cow.


It is time to take a breath and think.


The outcome in the Senate is pre-ordained: Donald Trump will remain in the White House until the election, possibly beyond. We are at great risk and must prepare for such a result. I ask myself and my readers to consider this possiblity, and worse, and to initiate a process of self-questioning and problem solving.


What can we do in the short term? What can we do day-to-day to make our individual, too-short lives joyous and fulfilling while, at the same time, remain constant in our efforts to resist fascist impulses, retrograde laws, and constitutional challenges.


I cannot ask others to do what I must do to answer these questions. I will list a few suggestions here and ask you, dear reader, to add yours to the mix with your comments in this open forum:


1. Read more history to maintain persepective about the fault lines in the American Experiment that have led us to this dire moment. Resist escapist literature and series binging, at least some of the time. Each day, shut down electronic devices and read. Reading slows us down and exercises our cognitive muscles so that we can think deeply and precisely. We will need strengthened brain power in the months ahead.


2. Help a young person become educated. If you do not have children or grandchildren, and even if you do, volunteer some hours every week with the other 98% as well as the entitled 1 %. Both are important. Help deepen literacy in the broadest sense of the word. Encourage and participate in a content analysis of the media this young person relies on for information and entertainment. Study together. Talk constantly. Use evolved language to defeat propaganda.


I work in two disparate educational instituions—one privileged, one under-privileged—and I can attest to a stark similarity: Americans are under-educated. All of us need to raise our knowledge base.


3. Think global, work local. Wherever you are, in whataever town, village, hamlet, city or county--volunteer. Canvas. Meet and greet your local politicans, call them when you have a concern, write them emails, insist that they speak to you in full, considered sentences. Resist jargon, platforming and fund-raising pitches. Most are good people who want to serve until they get swept up into the "system." Insist on continuing accountability.


4. Get outside, away from the computer and television and news feeds, into the fresh air and sunshine. Walk with a friend, or wander and explore solo. Let your brain and spirit rest. Talk to everyone, do not assume anything, including a political point of view. People are more than one thing: they have struggles, they have stories. Listen to their stories. Remain open and compassionate. We owe it to the next generation. We owe it to ourselves.

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The Secret Language of Sport

Getty Images: The Victorious US Women's Soccer Team

 

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions?

 

                     George Eliot, "Daniel Deronda"

 

 

Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.

 

               

         Mariah Burton Nelson, National Council of Women's Organizations

 

 

I have just returned from a post-Thanksgiving 50-lap swim where I out-swam and out-paced three men to either side of me, and then sat in the sauna and had to listen to an all male conversation about marathons, hiking and climbing prowess. I was the only woman in the sauna, which is unusual, but I think these men had arrived in a male-bonding clutch after a run in the mountains. They seemed oblivious to my presence; I was not oblivious to theirs. I did insist that someone make room for me on the crowded benches after no one moved. After a day of cooking and cleaning-up, my body was craving the swim and the sauna, and I was not to be turned away because they—the male bonders—were taking up all the space. Chit chat chit chat. Then one man said he'd run in the Boston Marathon, and please excuse him for being politically incorrect, but he'd be damned if he could accept that men and women were allowed to compete in the same race. No one said a blessed word to contradict or correct this misogynist. And, for once, I didn't either. A day of relaxation requires remaining silent, right? But I could not stop the words that came into my writer's brain: devolution and disinhibition. In the not so long ago past, we had evolved; now we are in a devolution trajectory it seems. Certainly, in the not so long ago past, there was an understanding that we keep private hatreds private. Earlier this week, I heard someone refer to an accomplished woman athlete as a "tomboy." I haven't heard that word since—when—the 16th century?


I am an athlete. In high school, I was on the basketball team; we were not allowed to dribble. We had to stand and shoot. On the softball field, playing with the local boy athletes, I was allowed to hit--I was a slugger-- but not to run the bases. In the lake at day camp, I only raced against the girls. I was bored. At NYU in the pool my junior year, I only competed against young women, though I was faster than all of them. Eventually I joined the modern dance club, which was less frustrating.


I wrote about my experiences as a pre-Title IX young woman athlete for an anthology of stories called Whatever It Takes; Women on Women's Sport published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


So let me be very clear: I—and every woman athlete, professional or amateur, are beneficiaries of Title IX, the 1972 Federal Civil Rights Law, a law that protects everyone, not only women, from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The protections of the act extend beyond federal financing. With the #metoo revelations, court cases, accusations and resignations, the conversation with and about women --as well as LGBTQ men and women-- has changed and expanded.


Will the packed Supreme Court mess with Title IX? I certainly hope not. All women athletes expect equal opportunity, respectful conversation, and pay equity on every playing field.

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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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Departures

Edmund de Waal's vitrines in the West Gallery of the Frick Museum.

 

I went to the Frick Museum before my NYU class last week to see the Edmund de Waal site-specific installation, "Elective Affinities." De Waal is best known in the United States as the author of "The Hare With Amber Eyes," a memoir about his maternal Viennese (Jewish) family, the Ephrussis, whose mansion on The Ring was ransacked when the Germans invaded Vienna in March of 1938. De Waal was born in England and still lives there.


I was working on "Searching for Fritzi," the story of my Viennese family, at about the same time as de Waal was researching "The Hare With Amber Eyes," and we had some email correspondence. He was already a world-renowned ceramicist; the book enhanced his reputation. I didn't know him when I lived in London as a journalist, a missed opportunity.


That's the backstory of our six degrees of connection. I've kept track of de Waal over the years, his career, as well as his family's decision to take the Austrians up on their offer of citizenship, which I refused. The Ephrussi mansion has also been restored to them and they recently celebrated a family reunion there. So when I heard about the exhibition at the Frick, I knew I had to get there before it closed at the end of November.


I don't know what my expectations were exactly. Perhaps to feel de Waal's presence, his heightened sensitivity as an artist with Austrian ancestry, his narrative about art and its purpose. De Waal considers himself a European which, as an American, I do not, so what would his commentary consist of?


The Frick's rooms and collection mimic European hauteur. They are monumental in size with carpeted floors, damask curtains and skylights. De Waal's work is small, and mostly white. He rarely strays from white, he has often said. And though the vitrines containing his delicate porcelain pots gave me pause, "the pause of space," as one label suggested, I began to question this somewhat trendy curatorial commission—contemporary artists in dialogue with old master works. What does "in dialogue" mean exactly? Does it mean departure, inspiration, something more, or less? What did Charlotte Vignon, the Frick's curator of decorative arts, have in mind? She and de Waal are friends; they worked on a book together. What she has said, in interviews, is that she hopes visitors will reconsider the collection through de Waal's modern prism.


It wouldn't be the first time that a curator or editor had a different vision than the artist (or writer) they have commissioned. That might have happened here. Certainly the result is perplexing, even unsatisfying. Rather than reconsider the Frick's collection in the light of current events and new ideas about Western art, I found de Waal's vitrines intrusive, even humorous at times. Wee vitrines with wee porcelain pots, beautifully glazed, set at different angles. End of story, or absence of story. Alternatively, the scale of the vitrines may simply be swallowed up by the grandeur of the once lived-in mansion that is now a museum.


Even a docent I talked to was unsure what to say when I asked her what she thought of de Waal's work. We could both see that the dark gray glaze might have been a commentary on Frick himself—a steel magnate—or on the El Greco soldier in armor in the West Gallery, that was more or less obvious. But there didn't seem to be much else to explain, and we both went silent.


"There's no there there," I said, quoting Gertrude Stein.


"The Emperor's New Clothes," the docent said sotto voce.


"How much did you say Frick paid for that Rembrandt?" asked a visitor from China, not exactly a non sequitur.

 

At a moment of "total crisis in Europe," as de Waal has expounded to many reporters—referring to the migrant crisis and the retreat to insularity and Fascism—he has sold off 79 of his family's precious Japanese netsuke figures, hidden in a mattress by the family's maid during the war. The sale raised £79,590 for the Refugee Council. The rest of the collection has now gone on long-term loan to the Jewish Museum in Vienna.


There is not a whisper of de Waal's philanthropic preoccupations anywhere in the exhibition, nor was he able to convey them even tangentially to an eager American audience in this installation.

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An Inspiring Free-Wheeling Free-Thinking Writer Friend

Mykel in Fedora and trenchcoat

 

I don't agree with much of what my free-thinking, free-wheeling, writer friend, Mykel Board, says, politically speaking, nor can I stomach the scatalogical and anti-feminist riffs and humor in his blog, but there is something about this guy—a former Yippie, a musician, a punkster, a jokester—I find both endearing and inspiring. Underneath the costume—and sometimes outrageous assertions—is a big-hearted man who loves talking to people all over the world, a true internationalist.


He has a unique lifestyle. A linguist by training, he teaches English at a Japanese language school in mid-town Manhattan, which is where I met him many years ago. In between his teaching gigs, he'd travel somewhere he'd never been before for a month at least, couch surf, build his FB coterie of friends, take voluminous notes, and write. Only someone single and child-free can do this, I said to myself. I used to feel amused, annoyed and ever-so-slightly envious as he put the language school job on hiatus for a month and disappear. Or sometimes he'd go off for a year. He has taught English in Mongolia and written a book about that experience. He has taught in Japan. To this day, my first question when we meet for lunch or a coffee is, "So where to next, Mykel?" And he'll usually tell me with the excitement of a little kid. He's already found new friends online, often people who read his blog, has places to stay, is reading books by local writers, and can't wait to set out.


Last time, however, was different. His destination was under wraps; he refused to tell me. I asked if he thought that was a good idea. Shouldn't someone know where he was headed? But he said, no, not this time. Then he was back.


We met for a coffee before my NYU class last week. "So where have you been, Mykel?"


"In Pennsylvania," he said, deadpan.


"You stayed Stateside? What gives?"


"A whole month in a Punxsutawney, the groundhog town," he explained. "I put an ad in the local paper asking for a rental and had the top floor of a house. The landlady didn't want my budgeted $1000; she'd only take $600. I couldn't believe the generosity. I've had an idea for a novel for a long time and needed to research it in situ. I wrote 40,000 words while I was there."


I tried to imagine city punk Mykel in Fedora, trench coat, and big black boots nearly up to his knees, in this little town, population 5,788. On the other hand, I thought, what an admirable thing to do. It was typical of him to follow his curiosity into a writing project. Total immersion, he hung out, got to know people, the local library, the bars. He even was invited to a writer's group and read a few of his pages.


"I had to catch myself," he said. I assumed that because I was in a rural area, the writing wouldn't be any good. What a prejudice. It was sophisticated, terrific. The group liked my pages, too, except for the vulgarity."


"No suprise," I said. "I don't either."


He's going for 90,000 words, he told me, a huge book, because he's read that's what publishers are looking for these days.


"Have you made progress beyond that initial 40,000 word spurt since your return?" I wanted to know.


"Not much," he said.


The writer/teacher's lament. I can relate. If I am not already in the midst of a project, I try to get one started before term begins. Otherwise I begin to feel resentful of my productive students.


Mykel is still single, has no obligations other than to his authentic self and the words he puts in his books or in his columns. But even that statement requires explanation. He's been a devoted, constant friend to many, including Josephine, also a former teacher at the language school, who is now in a nursing home. He visits her at least once a month when he's in town. Who else that I know would do that?

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The Promise of Autumn

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

A hundred biographies are possible for every human being.

Olivier Todd, "Albert Camus; A Life"

 

It was a good day for law enforcement.

John Grisham, "The Chamber"

 

Wahrheit, wie immer, die erste verteidignung de freiheit.

Truth, as always, is the first defense.

 

Cliff Hopkinson in a Facebook reply to my post about Austrian citizenship.

 

 

Happy while writing, I thought, as I wrote the post about Austrian citizenship, and then on its heels, just days later, "Lockdown," a continuing story. Much as I would like to alternate light-hearted posts with more serious entries, there are weeks when this is not possible. As a witness, and a writer who considers herself a witness, I seize every opportunity to explore and comment upon the conundrums of contemporary life. I know that I may be exceptional in this regard, out of the mainstream, and often unmarketable, at least in the United States, but it's the way I've evolved as a writer. Here I am, as Jonathan Safran Foer would say. Here I am.

 

I often tell my students that they are well positioned to write about certain subjects, once they discover their subjects. Our backstories, occupations and experiences are windows—portals  in current parlance—into  these subjects. And many of these experiences, whether in childhood, or further along on our trajectories, shape our obsessions and point of view. There is never any way to escape these imperatives, so why try? Just get on with it. Write your heart out, I say. Move freely between subjects, move freely within your writer self. Read everything about your subject. Read voraciously. Write all the time.

 

This week I am reading Jonathan Lethem's "The Feral Detective," a refreshing encounter with a female protagonist written by an imaginative male writer. Even more intriguing is the language, a ricochet into a newly-fashioned dialect. It takes place in a dystopian world where truth is the only defense, if we can find it. Thank you, Cliff Hopkinson, dear Gotham Writers Workshop friend, for the self-made quotation about such truths. Your struggle to find apt words in German was entirely apt; I thought you were quoting Goethe. Well, it could have been Goethe.

 

I quote John Grisham here also as I return to him late at night as an anchor of reason and political common sense. "The Chamber," written some years ago, is an anti death-penalty book. I defy anyone to sustain a "belief," in the death penalty--for that is all it is-- after reading this 600-odd page genre novel. Grisham tells the story from every point of view, including the prisoner on death row. No spoilers—read the book. And then take a walk into the mountains, a park, the street where you live, and revel in what's left of the turning leaves.

 

 

  

 

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Lockdown

Photo © copyright by Axel Schmidt on October 13, 2019: demonstrators in Bebelplatz Square, Berlin after the synagogue burning in Halle.

I was sitting in the Writing Center at a two-year community college where I had been hired as a professional tutor to help students with their essays and other assignments. The college has a wide catchment area, urban and rural. I am new to the area having just moved from New York City about a year ago, and am still trying to figure out the culture. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of struggle, big houses alongside shacks and trailers, the gentry coming up from the city to buy up cheap property and ride their bikes on weekends on the narrow country roads. In other words, the community, and this particular college, and the writing center within the college, is a microcosm of our divided country with its huge income gap between rich and poor. I've had affluent overseas students, and students whose families have been in the county for generations leading hardscrabble lives. I've had veterans suffering from PTSD and a young mother who is going back to school for the first time since she dropped out of high school. So when a young man walked into the center wearing a fancy head set, which he did not remove, I was hopeful that either I, or one of my colleagues that day, would be able to help. But he was not in the center to get help with an assignment, apparently, though he obviously needed help, of a different kind. His movements were erratic, impulsive; he seemed unstable and troubled. He said hello to my two colleagues and then he swiveled, stopped in front of me, pointed his finger and said, "Jew." Immediately I questioned whether I'd heard him correctly.


"What did you say?" I asked him.


But he didn't answer my question.


How did he know I was a Jew? I look Semitic, but I could be Iranian, I could be a Cree from Saskatchewan, I could be Greek. Where did he pick up his racist ideas? His racist impulse? What radio programs or internet sites had he been ingesting without understanding their meaning and import?


I had just finished reading Eli Saslow's book, "Rising Out of Hatred," about the infiltration of mainstream political culture by the white supremacist movement. But the student who had called me a Jew was African American, so I was puzzled. Had he experienced so much racism and brutality himself that his scrambled mind now turned it on others? Maybe it wasn't music playing on his headset but a racist screed urging him on? Maybe he imagined himself to be white, or didn't know who he was, or where he was. What might he have hidden in his backpack?


The proliferation of weapons, the proliferation of foul ideas, one feeding the other as they take root in a mentally ill man, albeit an African American man. As a part-timer I'd missed the most recent lockdown drill, but had reviewed the various protocols before the term began; there have already been 22 school shootings in the USA in 2019. I am used to tight security at NYU where I have been an adjunct since 1997, and puzzled by the lax security at this public college which has an "open door, open campus" policy. Even members of the community can wander onto the campus, walk their dogs, or use the library. But this utopian ideal can be ruined by one terrible incident. The non-discriminatory policies enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects students' rights and applauds access for all, education for all, is non-negotiable, as it should be. But what about the rights of the faculty, the other students, and the ancilliary staff?


My mind flashed to the "safe" closet just steps away, but we were all sitting, and this big, strong young man was standing, blocking the aisle. He rushed away and then turned back. Now he was standing in front of me again, jabbering nonsensically, and staring at me intently. I should have done a lot of things in that moment, but I was paralyzed. I'm a Jew, I thought, how does he know I am a Jew? Has he heard about synagogue shootings this year, seen the images on television? Does it make a difference that I am a secular Jew? That some of my European family are, in fact, Catholic? Is he going to hurt me?


My colleagues were watching, but didn't seem as alarmed as I was. Neither of them is Jewish, so how could they understand the iconic terror that had been unleashed in me? How could they understand that I still feel my parents' and grandparents' terror the day that Hitler marched into Vienna and my grandmother, Nanette, was forced onto her knees to scrub stones? She had been at work that day and was on her way home. How did the German soldiers know she was Jewish? She wasn't religious, did not wear a wig. How did they know?


Finally, the man left and I reported the incident to my supervisor who sent an email I wrote to document the incident to campus security. The Director of Safety and Security Services and the Dean of Students arrived to talk to me immediately and discussed what could be done. They were kind, professional, reassuring. The student has been suspended for now, they said, and there will be a hearing in a few days time. They didn't think he was dangerous, but one never knows. "I've been profiled based on my appearance," I told them. "Something triggered him. I feel shaken."


My father often said that we mustn't bring more Jewish children into the world only to be killed. He argued for assimilation, for secularism in the American diaspora. I was relieved to marry a man from Polish/Russian/Jewish ancestry who does not "look" Jewish, who would not be singled out and could—and this was probably an unconscious thought—protect me. And I was relieved when my daughter did not inherit my Semitic nose and then married a British man, an Anglo Saxon, and changed her name, all of these also unspoken thoughts. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family to carry Middle-Eastern and/or North African genes on my face. Although I experienced anti-Semitism in England for the first time in my life, I had always felt safe in America, until I wasn't.

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