A Writer's Valentine's Day

February 14, 2018

My lawyer’s office manager just wished me a Happy Valentine’s Day. “If you care about such things,” she said, and giggled.

“Well, it depends. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next week,” I said. “Right now I am thinking about my first NYU class tonight, a 331 page manuscript I am evaluating, running my car--no alternate side parking today, it’s also Ash Wednesday—pulling some cash from a local ATM that donates $1.19 to the Actors’ Fund—lots of performers in my hood—and buying some milk. I’ll walk up the stairs at 187th Street, the Mt. Everest of Washington Heights, my exercise for the day.”

“That’s a long answer,” the office manager said.

“I’m a writer. By definition, we’re verbal.”

I think she needed to get off the phone. I hadn’t even asked her my burning question yet: “When will the next invoice be sent out?”

“Next week,” she said.

“Okay, good,” I said, cutting myself short. “Have a terrific rest of the day.”

“Good? You are looking forward to the next invoice?”

“Very much so,” I said.

We both laughed.

My day had started well: contact with a friendly person. Connection. Shared humor. Writing is a solitary occupation and mainting contact is fuel and solace. One reason, among many, I love to teach. And I just used the word “love.” Happy Valentine’s Day to me and all my students, past, present and future.

Who will be my next-- please listen to my story-- victim? Well, my husband is in his office working. I can hear him on the phone. When I’m not writing or talking on the phone myself, or reading, I start to accumulate stories, questions, ideas, worries that I have to be expressed or I feel as though I’ll burst. Performers, visual artists, writers—we all feel an urgency normal mortals do not share: an impulse to express ourselves publicly, to share our experiences, observations and opinions. We don’t hold much back, we don’t want to hold much back, so we search for the medium—based on our particular talent—that best serves what we want to say. We’re not always successful, but we try.


The Deportation

February 3, 2018

Tags: ICE, illegal entry, crimes against humanity, deportations, detentions


"He made a story for all of them, a story to give them strength."

--Leslie Marmon Silko, “Ceremony”


I made the mistake of watching a CNN feed on my Facebook page early in the morning. A 39-year-old man who had been brought to America when he was ten, no crime or misdemeanor on his record, married to an American citizen with two American-born children, was being deported. I could feel the family’s scream in my teeth.

That day, I had planned to work on the revision of my novel which is set in pre-Revolutionary New York. I had stopped in the year 1741, months after a slave rebellion. A slave in the Franks household, a real family I am amplifying with my imagination, had participated in the rebellion and been captured. He was up for trial in front of Judge James Delancey. The judge had only two choices: execution or deportation to one of the British-held plantations in Jamaica, the most brutal slave plantations in the hemisphere, perhaps in the history of slavery. In other words, this slave was being deported to his death.

The same is true of many illegal immigrants escaping the gangs in Central America: they are being deported to their death.

Where are we now in our evolution as a humane society? How far have we progressed since Hitler marched into Vienna in March of 1938 and began redefining who was German and who was not, selecting and then deporting Jews, homosexuals, and political dissidents to transit camps before being gassed in the death camps? How far have we progressed since the Serbs decided that the Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia were less than human? Since the Hutus slaughtered the Tutsis in Rwanda?

No CNN cameras were rolling when the jackbooted soldiers ordered my grandmother, Nanette, at gunpoint to get down on her hands and knees to scrub cobblestones. She had been on her way home from work at the family-owned retail glove store near St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Would I be exaggerating if I said that the ICE deportations are an analagous form of ethnic cleansing deserving of prosecution by the International Criminal Court? I do not think so. And just because these deported men and women disappear, never to be seen in America again, does not mean that we haven’t killed them or destroyed their families. And I use the editorial “we” here deliberately.

Bear witness, dear reader. Write your stories. They will give you strength.

Chasing the Whale, Part 1

January 29, 2018

Tags: Melville, Moby Dick, Nantucket, hubris, machismo, whaling

“Ignorance is the parent of fear, and being completely nonplussed and confounded about the stranger, I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”

So sayeth Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s “Moby Dick,” as he reflects on his dark-skinned, tattooed, Polynesian bunk mate, Queegqueg, before they shared a friendly pipe and a whaling journey on The Pequod with Captain Ahab. The book, which is a tome, was published in 1851 at a time when men and and women with amputated moral consciences took pleasure in justifying slavery, one of America’s fault lines, the other being the genocide of the Native tribes. The evolution of our democracy was stunted then, as it is stunted again today, cut off at the knee like Ahab’s stump by an innocent whale fighting for its life.

It’s no surprise to me that I am reading “Moby Dick.” Iconic stories often arrive in our consciousness at the right historical and/or personal moment. We pick them up and suddenly they make sense. Had I been forced to read it in high school? If so, the language alone—Shakespearean, biblical, hyperbolic, often polemical—would have shut down my curiosity, if I had been curious, which is doubtful. And where are the women? I have encountered only one in 300 pages: she brings supplies onto the moored boat in Nantucket. This is a story about men at sea, literally and figuratively. They kill whales, which they barely notice are mammals. And they are unapologetic about the blood letting of these intelligent creatures. They need the oil and the meat, but mostly the oil. Another present-day resonance.

Hubris. Entitlement. Amputated moral conscience. We’ve seen plenty of this in recent months in Washington.

This flawed book, which I am not certain is even a novel, is encyclopedic, epic, occasionally self-important. But there are so many jewels embedded in the text that I am staying with it. I’ll report again when I have finished and read a biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco. After that, “Billy Budd.” Immersion reading.

Where I'm From

January 14, 2018

Tags: immigration, ICE, DACA, Dreamers, Shitholes, racism, sanctuary cities

I’m from New York, born and raised in New York on 104th Street and West End Avenue. I’m born of European parents, refugees, exiles from the European continent, educated German-speaking cultured Jews, both of them doctors. If they hadn’t escaped and found safe-haven in France and America, they would have been killed and I would not have been born. They were dreamers: a new continent, a new language, the “promise” of America and all its implied protections.

My family’s dislocation and relocation is embedded in my writer’s brain and heart. I write about it often, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, sometimes unconsciously. Their experience was unique and also typical of most Americans. Unless we are Native Americans, all of us, absolutely all of us, are from someplace else or have ancestors who were from someplace else. That includes the Pilgrims and Puritans, the slaves who were forcibly stolen from West Africa, and the economic migrants, and the undocumented adults and children who are escaping gangs in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and the current President of the United States. Ignorant, pathological, abusive, so vile is this man’s blunt racism that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has formally denounced him.

Where I’m From. I’m from a progressive family, European Social Democrats. They loved Bernie, understood his rap, couldn’t understand why he didn’t make it to the White House. Their paradigm, even after so many years as citizens of America, was a European parliamentary paradigm. Build coalitions. Get things done. The Fascists are still present, but the newly formed Post-World War II coalitions will defend liberal democracy. “The courts work,” my European lawyer step-father might have said. He was enamored of the Supreme Court and read everything that was written about them. And, in this sense, he was as American as apple pie.

The term is about to begin, and this being New York, I will have students from everywhere, Dreamers included, in this ostensibly sanctuary city. But ICE is on the move. And this is worrisome. I think of my students from despotic regimes--China, Iran--many returning to their home countries after the term is over. What do I say to them? Speak boldly. Write without self-censorship. This room is a safe haven. No one will arrest you. But now I am not so sure of any of this, though I won’t stop saying it.

Every writer must feel entirely free. And even if we are not certain of our external freedoms in America right now, or our countries of origin if we are visitors here on visas, we can cultivate freedom, civility and courage within ourselves and write with a bravado that brings tears, laughter and inspiration to everyone who reads our words.




Intelligence

January 3, 2018

Tags: CIA, Studies in Intelligence, Seventh Fleet, Dan Fesperman, Aid Workers, Le Carré, Treasure Island Navy Base

Definition: 1. The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. “He writes with intelligence.” 2. The collection of information of military or political value.

My husband, Jim, was in an intelligence unit in the United States Navy (dates classified). He’d been on active duty in the Seventh Fleet for two years and had a six-year reserve commitment. Once a week, he put on his Navy Whites and headed for Treasure Island to read, interpret, and write dispatches and reports. Although he never received his top secret clearance—that takes years—there was plenty he was able to read, interpret, and re-write in plain English. That much he told me.

Of course, I was curious. We were living together but not yet married. I tried to seduce him with a meal before his departure every week, Thursdays I think it was, in the car by 6 p.m., over the Bay Bridge, and onto the base for his obligatory monthly duty, home by 10 p.m. “So how was it? What did you find out?” Silence.

Why has this anecdote surfaced today? Well, I’ve been reading some Le Carré (“Russia House,” “The Night Manager”), a fine writer who was in the intelligence service himself, and a thriller by Dan Fesperman called “The Amateur Spy.” A relief worker friend had boasted he’d been interviewed by Fesperman as he was researching. They’d met in Bosnia when Fesperman was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Like other war reporters—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Sebastian Junger more recently—Fesperman has used the trove of collected stories from war zones as inspiration for fiction. But how fictional is “The Amateur Spy?” Would there be clues to my relief worker friend’s mysterious life in the text? Why does he only have a P.O. Box at the moment, refuse to give me his address, and disappear at regular intervals? Had he, in fact, been recruited as a spy long ago when he was in the field as a relief worker? Does it matter? Doesn’t someone have to do this work? Is the work of a spy for the greater good? And whose greater good? Yours and mine? France, Britain, Russia, Iran, China? Are these rhetorical questions or can they be answered?

I’d often heard from refugees and asyless that relief workers were suspect, in the pay of governments as spies, and not to be fully trusted. I had tried not to believe these stories. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the dark world of intelligence gathering is almost impossible to decipher unless one is in it. Spies live in the shadows; they can never be fully known. The stories they tell, where they live, where they have traveled, remains hidden to normal mortals, friends, lovers, even relatives. And, so, in addition to my husband’s brief foray into intelligence work, I think, possibly, I have known three spies. The most recent was a man at a dinner party who said he’d just returned from Syria. That was all he said—and it was probably too much. It was difficult to imagine him wandering in that now desolate country. How had he managed to return safely? Who was he traveling with? The mind wanders, imagination kicks in.

I was thinking about all this on the subway yesterday as I was reading Talk of the Town in this week’s New Yorker. “Some spy stories will be forever confined to memory, locked safes, and invisible ink,” writes Nicholas Schmidle. He goes on to describe a literary journal, “Studies in Intelligence,” published by the CIA! Browsing their website—submission guidelines on the site—I have decided it is more an academic journal than a literary journal. But never mind. Spy literature, the CIA calls it, and who are we not to believe the CIA? For the youngsters in the family there’s a “Kids’ Zone,” which includes a coloring book, puzzles and a word find.

Sex & Power

December 19, 2017

Tags: Sexual predators, intimidation, harassment, harassment laws, Bill Cosby, Charlie Rose, Donald Trump

The term is over, grades are in, I’ve done my holiday shopping. It’s time, I’m weighing in. I have to say something. How can I justify remaining mute? I’m a woman, a working woman, who has experienced her share of harassment and discrimination over the years, once quite recently, as you will read below. So I’m back at the computer trying to lace together coherent thoughts about the recent fraught weeks of sexual allegations, confessions and tumbling heads. What’s striking is how similar all the stories are, as though the words and sentences were churned out by a Hollywood script factory. What would Hawthorne (“The Scarlet Letter”) , Roth (”The Human Stain”) or Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) have to say if they were still writing? That there is historical precedent, undoubtedly: the witch trials, the McCarthy era, America’s “persecuting spirit.” But these writers, much as I admire all of them as writers, they were all men. And this situation, this moment in our history, it’s similar, but also different. It arrives at the end of a dark year, a man in the White House who, himself, has been accused by no less than twenty women of sexual “misconduct.”

So let’s begin with this: every organization, corporation, and institution, including the United States Congress, needs a transparent and reliable mechanism to sift through allegations. Are they true or false? Is this a vengeful denouncement or real? Bill Cosby is not Charlie Rose. One will possibly go to jail for—allegedly—drugging women to have vampiric sex with them when they are out cold, the other will crawl under the couch and, sooner or later, figure out how to regain his amour propre, the French gender-neutral expression meaning self-respect.

What about heartfelt mea culpas long after the fact? Do they make a difference, or not? Shall we consider them as we study what’s happened and mete out punishments? Shall we banish or forgive?

Obvious questions, perhaps.

Less obvious for me are these questions: Why are some powerful men still behaving so badly? Why don’t they know that what they are doing is not permitted even in law? Why are some women not accusing openly in situ, as it happens, or soon after? Why do some men fall and others amplify their power for years and years? Why has one become president of these United States? Why do some women succumb to intimidation and others speak out forcefully? What can all of us learn from this sordid episode in American history?

“Understanding is a two-way street,” said one of my feminist heroines, Eleanor Roosevelt. So let me try to understand the man who came into my classroom this past term to berate me in front of my students for writing on the screen instead of the whiteboard, and who thought he could get away with it when he said—in front of my students: “That was an $8,000 mistake.” He knew nothing about me except the monniker “professor,” and perhaps that was the problem, and our encounter was more about class and status than power and prowess, or perhaps it was both. When he left the room I called his supervisor, immediately. He came upstairs. He was alarmed. This man could lose his job if I formally charged him.

The perpetrator—for this is what he was even though he did not lay a hand on me-- wasn’t finished trying to reduce me, a woman professor, to supplicant: he waited for me after class, waved his finger at me and told me to “never do it again,” meaning what exactly? Write on a screen instead of a whiteboard, or dare to report him?

During this second encounter, the hallway had emptied out, I was headed home, I was alone with him on the fifth floor. I said nothing and walked away, down the escalator, as fast as I could go.

Words and gestures matter; they have an escalating power. Talk one day, abuse and violence the next. I was not comfortable and that, in itself, is cause for concern, and against all the mandates of the university that employs me. These rules were not in place a mere decade ago. We fought for them, and I am grateful for them. They are a civil right.

So here’s another Eleanor Roosevelt aphorism: No one can feel inferior without their consent. But what about feeling afraid? What about that? The women coming forward are now in a community of women, sharing experience and language to tell their stories, safely. Hopefully, their example will give other women, especially young women, the courage to speak out quickly whenever they are confronted by intimidation, harassment, hateful words, threats, or—worse—physical violence and rape. This is the spectrum of misogyny—contempt for women—we have been hearing about in recent weeks.

When a predator comes lurching into our personal or work space—whether we are male or female, gay or straight, transgender or gender fluid—it’s incumbent upon us to at least try to stop him, for our own sake and, ultimately, for theirs.



Leftovers

December 2, 2017

I am reminded, by the FB business department, that my many FB friends have not heard from me in a while. Maybe that is because they have migrated to Instagram. All those news feeds on FB!!! FB has not heard from me for a while and I have not heard from me in a while, more than two weeks since my last blog post to be exact. Days of resting, reading, taking inventory of abandoned projects, and spending time on the phone with my insurance company explaining the iconic phrase “Catch 22” and its origins.

There are friends overseas who care about such a hiatus in communication. They wonder if I am okay and what is happening here at the moment. Here meaning New York. Here meaning the United States. I will answer their concerns soon with personal letters sent on email. I will include some photos. I will send links of the most dangerous malaprops uttered by our Commandant in Chief and a recent diagnostic conference by noted forensic psychiatrists at Yale.

Oh, it is difficult to concentrate these days, dear reader. And so I am meandering today, picking up scraps and leftovers coursing through my writer’s brain.

I have a friend in London I still miss very much. Her name is Norma. (Norma, I hope you will read this.) She’s a gifted performer and writer, a devoted single parent, a clear political thinker, an activist. For many years after I returned to New York we exchanged snail mail packages filled with clippings, theater programs, gallery brochures, drafts of stories, and taped messages, a potpourri of seemingly unconnected fragments, but only seemingly so. The taped messages, at least an hour long, pulled the fragments in the packages together into stories.

These days Norma and I send emails, “see” each other on FB, and talk on the phone. Our daughters are grown, and we are aging well—working on books, writing articles, and teaching. Our connection is so deep, continuous and lifelong that it sometimes feels as though we have digested the paragraphs of day to day existence into a book of friendship. We’ve only had one quarrel I can remember and it was, as the British say so endearingly, “sorted,” over a period of painful months. And then it was over.

Norma remembers the Thanksgiving meals we had in London. Our British friends found them both amusing and oddly historic. After all, they were a celebration of a breakaway colony of which we were the living representatives, returned to the Mother Country, for a while anyway. Very little was leftover from these frugal meals. We were young, struggling, and food in London was expensive. We kept our turkeys small and our conversation focused on contemporary transnational concerns. The focus was as much on the gathering as the food. Christmas was near, a very important holiday in England, and we always looked forward to that, too, and were always invited somewhere.

Back in America, the bounty in the supermarkets was overwhelming. Huge stores, many choices on the shelves, enormous turkeys. And there were leftovers wrapped in foil for days and days. We lay them out, we warm them, we eat them in a more desultory way. Every morsel must be reconstituted before a post-Thanksgiving meal feels pleasurable. The foil is crushed into the recycle bin, bones are tossed, dishes washed and stored yet again. We are tired. We require rest.

The fragments of projects in my storage bins and filing cabinets are similar. Once I truly believed they were cooked to perfection, a sequence of events and ideas that made sense, that were coming to fruition. Now I study some of them and wonder how and why I wrote those sentences, or why I let an idea that felt sensational drift away. Something wasn’t working, but what? Did one draft lead to another that worked? Is that possible? Or did someone else write those sentences, a less experienced writer, namely me? Were some of these stored fragments merely writing practice? Probably.

I know that it’s essential to keep going to achieve mastery, to write every day, to sharpen observation. And not to feel discouraged by stale, incoherent leftovers, all of which are the unfinished business of the writing life. It’s not that we have to go back to everything, not at all. But to pull out some of the old work that still resonates and to try to make a pleasurable meal of it, that’s a joy and a discipline.

#longhashtags

November 13, 2017

Tags: Chris Messina, Google, metadata, hashtags

Have you noticed, dear reader, that personal hashtags on FB posts, for example, are getting longer, and longer, and longer? This being the case, what does the evolving length of #wordsconnectedtowords without spaces signify for the writer? A stop sign, I’d say.

Let us take a breather and ask some questions about this linguistic phenomena. Did Chris Messina @ Google (in 2007) intend his content search invention to be used to tell stories? Probably not. Nor did he want to patent his “invention,” if indeed it would have qualified as a patented “product,” because he knew that the internet highway would capture and proliferate whatever was useful in hashtags with our without him, for free. Which it did.

My concern is solely that of a writer: hashtags are useful for content searches, but they are not the content itself. They make a mishmash of words, sentences, concepts and stories. They are not stories. They are indicators, symbols, short-cuts, synopsi, compressed thoughts, instantaneous observations, and symptoms of a time-pressured, hyperkinetic, goal-driven tweeting culture. Writers, real writers, not #hashtagwriters, cannot function well in such a charged environment except to say: meet me here—at this literal or virtual place—where something is happening you may be interested in.

Is it retro of me to suggest that writers stop writing hashtags, or use them only at the end of a narrative prose story? Probably. Think of me, and all educators, as guardian angels of language. The more our language is diluted, over-simplified and distorted, the harder it will be to retrieve the complexities of thought required in our challenging world. Our children must be taught to think, to analyze, to discern fact from fiction, to make intelligent decisions and choices. They need language to do this, not #soundbytenews or #hashtags. End of story: #writersresisthashtags

Are We Safe?

November 1, 2017

Tags: Urban terrorism, New York City, UNICEF, NYPD, FDNY, FBI, war zones

I wish to say only this: let us dedicate this blog post and this day to the murdered cyclists on the West Side Highway of Manhattan. Let us put our arms around the terrified children, their teachers and caretakers, the pedestrians who witnessed the carnage, the brave men and women of the NYPD, FDNY and FBI. Let us think about our human frailty, our resilience and our resistance. Let us not stop listening to one another. Let us not build walls. Let us study colonial history intently and understand why a lunatic terrorist came to America if only to kill. This trouble we are in did not begin out of thin air. And though utterly irrational in many respects, it has a source, a reason. Let us begin there in our understanding and our effort to find solutions.

I offer you, dear reader, a photograph of beautiful, innocent children, soccer fans, far away from New York. If we could transport them to New York they, too, might have been victims of the terrorist’s truck. Indeed, children in many countries are living in war zones and desperate poverty. They are in grave danger. What are we, as adults, doing to protect them, to make the world a more peaceful and safer place?

These are very abstract thoughts for this writer, but I am weary this morning, and sad for the afflicted families. It took me two hours in a slowed down, partially locked down city, to get home yesterday, and when I arrived, and only then, did I find out what had happened. I was safe, all my friends and loved ones were safe, messages were flooding Facebook, a troubled sleep, some journaling, this blog post, and onward into a new day.

But not without some reflection. And, as a writer, not without some thoughtful words. What can we do, little by little, one small action at a time, to make the world a safer and more peaceful place?

Anonymous Letters

October 26, 2017

In celebration of Halloween, a completely true story:

My name was handwritten on the envelope: “Ms. C. Bergman.” A New York postmark, no return address, no note. Inside, tear sheets from JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, a review of a new biography of the manic-depressive poet, Robert Lowell. It was interesting in many ways, most particularly in its assertion that to medicate mentally ill artists risks interfering with their creative process. But why had the sender underlined the words “mutely alone,” or bracketed the sentence, “The reigning assumption is that depression and anxiety are meaningless?" And why send it to me anonymously? Was one of my former students in trouble? A friend? Someone asking for help? Or was it meant to disturb my sense of well-being?

It wasn’t the first time I had received an anonymous letter, or been threatened, or denounced, or stalked. Years ago, in London, I’d written an investigative article for the educational supplement of The Times and received a threatening post card from the National Front. The—unknown someone—wanted me to go back where I came from. And I am not sure they meant the United States of America. Hell maybe? The police considered the message a form of “gentle” terrorism, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Most disconcerting: whoever had penned that sweet note knew my address. So, too, the person who sent me the most recent anonymous message.

Weeks have passed since I received the JAMA article and I have still not thrown it out, nor have I shown it to the police. Dear Anonymous Reader, it’s Halloween, the game of Hide and Seek is over. Come out, come out wherever you are! Patiently, I await a phone call, an email, a broomstick delivery by the Wicked Witch, or a middle-of-the night epiphany that will reveal you/the sender to me. Someone who might say, “Oh, I thought you’d be interested. Sorry if I spooked you in any way.”

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