Tell Your Story Here

September 18, 2017

Tags: Lesbos, refugees, "Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories"

This year, more than 400,000 refugees have landed in Greece. Photo: Courtesy UNHCR
A friend’s daughter, Sarah, recently graduated from college, and went to the island of Lesbos to teach English to Syrian women in a refugee camp. We are Facebook friends and I noted that she’d put up a post or two during her three-month “mission,” the word relief workers use to describe their forays into the netherworld of refugees and the internally displaced, as the UN calls them. There is a lot of jargon in this netherworld. I think the word “mission” originated in the religious relief organizations, of which there are many. The word “testimony,” of which more later, also comes from a religious tradition. Relief workers are, by definition, outsiders, yet often find it impossible to stay neutral in their opinions, especially in a war zone, and when they write about their experiences some say they are “giving testimony.”

Sarah posted Facebook photos with short captions, not of her refugee students, but of herself, a friend or two, I recall, a cerulean sky. I didn’t ask if she kept a journal; somehow I knew she would. Then her three-month EU visa was up and she left Greece for Morocco where she has been studying Arabic. She was never a constant Facebook user, but I missed the occasional posts she put up from Lesbos. I was confident she eventually would write her story and perhaps use some of these posts—photos and text—as well as her journal entries to document an essay.

Then a phone call from Sarah’s father, Steve, reassured me that all was well with Sarah in Morocco, more than well. Steve is a physician, enough time had passed for Sarah to obtain a new visa for Greece, and together father and daughter met in Lesbos for a couple of weeks--a short mission--to work in the same camp where Sarah had been before. She had missed her students and reunited with some of them; others had moved on. Steve worked with mostly Congolese refugees in a clinic. Such work is challenging, taxing, and often very upsetting.

Relief workers are expected to sign time-limited contracts, not to stay on and on, or shift agencies and take on other missions one after another. They get hooked. They have to be encouraged to take R&R, take care of themselves, and one small way to do this is to keep a journal and to use Facebook to write long captions to their photos. Social media now amplifies journals and emails; it’s a useful tool.

It was not difficult to gather stories for my book, “Another Day in Paradise,” even though the logistics were often daunting. Eventually, I traveled to London, Amsterdam and Geneva for editing sessions, and emailed drafts back and forth numerous times. Without exception, all the workers were avid readers, kept journals, and had a fundamental understanding of how to shape a story.

Now Steve and Sarah, father and daughter, after just a short time “in the field,” have many “witnessing” stories of their own. I look forward to reading them.





The Student & The Harpist

September 3, 2017

Tags: Higher education, mentoring, harpists, LaGuardia High School of Art and the Performing Arts

Benjamin, of "Arpa International," mentoring LaGuardia High School student, Daniel Mahfooz.
You shouldn’t be surprised, dear reader, that I am writing about students at the beginning of the semester. I love to teach, as well as to write, and I love my students—their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their effort. Young, middle-aged, or elderly, experienced writers or newborns, they arrive in my workshop starstruck and hopeful.

And, so, in the waning days of summer, as I sit at my computer, prepare my syllabi and amend my reading lists, I contemplate two recent encounters that reaffirm my dedication to teaching. The first was on the “A” train, a source of many stories. It’s a microcosm of the city, a gathering of the city’s diverse population.

The Mexican guitarists had disappeared and the trains had been quiet for a while. Perhaps the hiatus prepared us for the arrival of Benjamin, The Harpist. Dressed as a mariachi player, he carried a miniature harp and played “Besame Mucho,” translation: “Kiss Me A Lot.” It was written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez, and is one of the most famous boleros ever recorded. I began to hum. Others took off their headphones, or stopped reading. When it was over, everyone burst into applause. Benjamin is a talented musician.

The train pulled into 59th street, which was also my stop that day. But that wasn’t the end of the story. A young man followed The Harpist out of the train. I stood and watched as they began to talk. Suddenly, the harp had been passed along and the young man was plucking at the strings, his ear close to the top of the harp to feel its resonance. I was touched by Benjamin’s kindness, his easy, generous mentoring, and couldn’t resist a flash interview. I took out my notebook and asked a few questions. The young man, Daniel Mahfooz, is a music student at LaGuardia High School of Art and the Performing Arts, my daughter’s alma mater. His family are originally from Egypt. I asked if he’d heard of Naguib Mahfouz, a famous Egyptian writer, but his answer was lost in the cacophony of incoming trains. And he was mostly interested in the harp anyway.

Then later that week, I met a young woman I will call Flo, as our conversation flowed so easily. She works at the welcome desk at the Y where I swim. I was waiting for a friend and had some time. We started chatting. She told me she was a student, and I told her I was a professor at NYU. She perked up. Thwarted by financial strain and disinterested professors, she explained, she was losing interest in getting her degree. I will not name the instituion where she is studying, it shall remain anonymous, as shall Flo’s real name, but I was shocked when she told me her story. How can a young woman, already in college, be so discouraged? It really hurt me. What she needs is a mentor, I thought to myself, a mentor like Benjamin, The Harpist. I shall be her mentor, if only for a few minutes, I said to myself. I asked about her major—English —and when I asked what she likes to read she said she didn’t like to read and, by the way, did I have any tips to “get through” Beowolf and Chaucer. So I gave her some tips—not for “getting through,” but to begin a relationship with these ancient works, and to get into the minds of the writers and oral story tellers who lived so long ago. “I write poetry,” Flo then told me. “And I like Malcolm Gladwell’s books.”

“I thought you told me you didn’t like to read?”

“My teachers don’t care what I have to say. I usually go off on tangents. ”

“I would love you in my class,” I said. “But you do need to learn how to read more tenaciously, at least one book a week,” I said. “Let Malcolm Gladwell lead you to other books. Take notes. Find a line that resonates (I told her the story about the harpist on the train and his resonating harp) and continue the line into your own poem. Follow your heart, discipline your mind. Read everything on your reading list in the same way. Read and write, read and write, all day long. Ignore disinterested professors who may feel as discouraged as you do, by the way. Maintain interest in yourself and your education. You’ve paid your tuition, don’t waste it.”

I gave Flo my card and encouraged her to stay in touch. I want to know how she does this year. Like all young people, she deserves a demanding education and teachers who care about her.


Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

August 23, 2017

Tags: Syrian refugees, Scandinavian murder mysteries, "Bordertown, " "Trapped, " 9/11

Ville Vartanen as Detective Kari Sorjonen in "Bordertown."
Is Finland in Scandinavia? Is it a Nordic country? And what is the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic? Like most Americans, my geographical knowledge is pitiful-- I must take a class sometime soon—and I always have to Google countries. I’ve traveled to Norway and Denmark, but never to Sweden or Finland. Finland has a border with Russia and is just miles from St. Petersburg. Russian, Swedish, Finnish, English—these four languages are almost interchangeable in Finland. Who knew? I didn’t.

We can learn a lot from murder mysteries. Right now my husband, Jim, and I are hooked—and bingeing on—“Bordertown”—four episodes to go. And before that we watched “Trapped,” from Iceland, which is not Scandinavia exactly, but feels as though it was chopped off from Scandinavia in an earthquake millennia ago.

And both of these series are wonderful. Why? The production values are high, the scripts are gorgeous—both character and plot driven with little or no gunfire. And we get a taste of a landscape and culture, albeit fictionalized and idealized , that is uniquely strange, yet familiar in its Western mores. It’s pure escapism, which is what we—Americans—seem to need these days. Texts fly from friends and family with suggestions of series newly discovered on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Stream me, baby, I’m ready for more fairy tales to vent my fears and discontents. But are these stories fairy tales? Or are they real? And what is real? And how close to real are these scripts? The murders are often grotesque, portrayed so graphically I often have to turn my head away. But the detectives are so imperfect, quirky and humane, I want to invite them over for dinner.

I had a Norwegian student when I was teaching at the University of London who invited us to her home four hours north of Oslo. High summer, lots of swimming in a fiord just minutes from her home. Her father was a Lennsmannkontor—the town’s mayor, notary republic and sheriff. He had a very impressive sign on his car with lights on top. But there was little danger; everything about the life in this small town seemed safe, stable. The population in Norway at the time was still homogeneous—no refugees. And there were no Scandinavian murder mysteries hitting the international bestseller lists then, either. So, perhaps, the success of these books and streamed series has something to do with the influx of desperate, migrating populations into the EU, and the transformation of once homogeneous societies into something else, or more, or different. All the Nordic/Scandinavian countries have been generous in welcoming refugee families. And they have suffered attacks. The most recent has been in Finland when an 18-year old Moroccan citizen, denied asylum, and known to authorities, went on a stabbing rampage. Two people were killed.

Undoubtedly, this tragic episode will stir the imaginations of Finnish writers as 9/11 has stirred the imaginations of American writers. After that world-changing event, I got a phone call from a reporter at the LA Times. She wanted to know if I thought the destruction of The Towers would show up in literature any time soon. All that we were writing in the wake of the attack was raw and insistent; it had not yet been transformed into literature. Beyond that, I really didn’t know. Who can predict these things? Years later, after 9/11 had mulched and settled, I wrote a murder mystery myself, “Say Nothing,” which, to my surprise, tapped into the trauma of 9/11 big time. The female detective is an Iraq vet. And she's very quirky and humane.

Jazz Journal

August 16, 2017

Tags: Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman, Voting Rights, Mississippi, Cleo Laine, JohnnyDankworth, George Melly, Daniel Goldhagen, Charlottesville

It’s a summer Monday, I’ve been away for a few days, the emails and Facebook posts have accumulated, and I am saddened—and frightened—by the events in Charlottesville. I attended a peaceful rally and stood with uptown New York City neighbors of every ethnicity and age, some carrying candles or signs, a new literary genre since 45 was elected. I am sure someone will eventually collect them into a book.

I began this blog post thinking about free speech vs. hate speech, and how propaganda—words and images—are often prequels to violent action, an historical truism. Hitler’s “willing executioners,” as Daniel Goldhagen, a Harvard historian called the ordinary people of Germany during Hitler’s rise, are too easily led, too unquestioning, too virulent in their verbal expressions of loathing and exclusion. Hatred obliterates conscience, humanity and rational thought. And this being unequivocally true, a bizarre question surfaced in my writer’s mind: I wonder if bigots listen to jazz? And, if not, what is their music of choice?

I listen to all kinds of music, but it is only jazz—its melodies and riffs, the improvisation of the next unscripted note—that satisfies during hard times. And this has been true for me since high school. Only my really cool friends listened to jazz on the all-night station in New York, unbeknownst to our parents, of course. We were supposed to be sleeping, not talking on the phone about the latest Jimmy Breslin editorial in the New York Post, or listening to the radio. We were going to a progressive, politically engaged school. Andrew Goodman, an alumnus, had just been murdered during a voter registration drive in Mississippi, a murder that remained unsolved until 2004.

Jazz. I spent my late adolescent years in Boston, New York and San Francisco, in affordable jazz clubs instead of rock clubs. For the price of one drink, we could stay into the night and all night. Jazz lovers and jazz clubs were integrated. What an amazing word! Some of the musicians were white, some were black. Did it matter where the music originated? Yes and no. Its African and slave origins were embedded. Tunes held the pain of the Middle Passage, the celebration of survival, hope for the future. The British imitators I knew when I lived in London—George Melly, Johnnie Dankworth, Cleo Laine, in particular—were in awe of its power and did their best to honor the musical tradition, making their own contributions.

So I ask again: do bigots listen to jazz? Should we pipe this indigenous American music through the air ducts of offices and bus stations, supermarkets and Walmarts? And, if we could do this, would a bigot’s brain waves shift from hatred to love? Would they begin to absorb the true meaning and promise of America? Would they stand down and turn in their guns?

Fly Me To The Moon

August 2, 2017

Photo of the moon rising © by Carol Bergman
I dreamt I booked passage to the moon. I opened the brochure and Frank Sinatra started singing Bart Howard’s love song, “Fly Me To The Moon.” That mellow voice. It was very relaxing.

What are you doing to relax, dear reader? Taking care of yourself, I hope.

I went to see my PCP yesterday to check out a small worry spot, and while we were commiserating about the mess in DC, we exchanged reading lists. I am totally into John Le Carré’s “Night Manager,” and also watched the mini-series (compelling, highly recommend), and he is reading a lot of junk and can’t even remember all the titles. When he is not reading junk, he is glued to MSNBC, not a good idea before sleep, I said. You are probably right, I have worry spots, too, he said. I put my husband under a headset when he watches MSNBC late at night, and I listen to music and read, I told him. I should do the same, my PCP said. Listen to music, that is.

I am a writer, I need to keep my mind clear. About a week ago I noticed that my Facebook feed was flooded with all kinds of news outlets because I had “liked” this and that. I couldn’t find my friends anymore, all those sweet pics of flowers and children and holidays. So I unliked as much as I could. It was like cutting away the fat on a piece of meat. And I don’t eat meat, so forgive me, but I cannot think of another analogy.

I should stop eating meat, too, my PCP said.

What would life be like on the moon?, I asked him. I woke up with this question in my head. Would night and day be all mixed up like we are here on earth right now? Because I do think we are all mixed up right now. Yes, my PCP agreed. Then he told me to get going, to move on. Sooner or later, there’ll be another worry spot, he said, but for now, when you leave here, rest assured that this one is okay, and that you are okay.

But even after I left the office, I kept thinking about living on the moon. Would it be an outdoor or indoor life? Would I be able to teach an advanced writing workshop? Find a bookstore? Order books from amazon.com? Would my cell phone work?

Remain Calm While You Read This

July 23, 2017

Tags: Hugh Jackman, Wolverine, Les Miserables, New Paltz, British War Ministry

My"Keep Calm and Carry On" cup. Every home should have (at least) one for those special cliff-hanging moments, personal and political.
We were eating in a Japanese restaurant in New Paltz when my daughter slipped me a carefully folded note: “Remain calm while you read this…” I opened the note and read further: “Hugh Jackman and his family are sitting to your right.”

My daughter and I are Hugh Jackman fans, not “Wolverine” but “Les Miserables” on Broadway, 2013, Jackman singing and dancing. Plus, my son-in-law looks a lot like him, but is even more handsome.

Of course, when one is told not to do something, how can one resist? In fact, this is a psychological phenomena similar to the urge to jump off a cliff, a bridge or a high building, no suicide intended. The French have a poetic phrase for it: L’appel du vide. The call of the void.

I looked all around, desperately trying to avoid looking to my right and to stay calm. I saw other diners chatting and enjoying their sushi. Then I saw HIM, or felt him, more probably, as the tables are in close proximity in this serene, small-town restaurant. Hugh Jackman! His wife was across from HIM, two kids, one on each side of the table, if memory serves, everyone enjoying their sushi. I’d be a terrible spy for The National Enquirer as I don’t recall all the details, just my embarrassment at discovering them, so to speak, though I had been told to remain calm.

Suddenly, I felt more than embarrassed, I felt nervous. And that is strange because I have interviewed more than a few celebrities and they are, as I have written here, just recently, persons to me. It is my mandate, as a writer, to write about them in the most human way possible, right? So why was I dumbstruck when my daughter handed me the note? L’appel du vide, obviously. I had jumped off a mental cliff.

Remember the British WW II poster: “Remain Calm and Carry On?” More than two million were printed in 1939 in anticipation of the Nazi advance across the Channel, but they were never distributed, they were stored away, only to be rediscovered in the 21st century and reprinted ad infinitum on cups and t-shirts. And the reason the posters were not distributed is interesting: the War Ministry didn’t like the wording, they thought it was condescending. As everyone knows, Brits always carry on, they can be trusted to carry on, it’s in the DNA.

But back to the restaurant: I think my husband felt my muscles tense and put his hand on my arm. I tried to eat and look straight ahead at my daughter and the mountains beyond, but I didn’t say a word. I carried on eating. And so did Hugh Jackman and his family. Had we allowed ourselves to speak casually to one another, as neighbors in a restaurant often do, I think we would all have agreed that the food was good.



Ghosting

July 12, 2017

Tags: Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo, Children's Television Workshop, Sesame Street

My agent called to set up a meeting with a television celebrity who was trying to write a memoir. She wouldn’t tell me his name and I didn’t ask. It was a gig. I needed the work. And I didn’t care who it was; a celebrity is a person and I am interested in all persons. I’d lived in London at a time when famous and infamous people walked around in shorts and t-shirts in the warm weather without body guards just like the rest of us, or turned up at dinner parties carrying flowers or bottles of wine, and took public transport, just like the rest of us. Politicians were always available for interview in their constituency and the word “spin” wasn’t yet in the dictionary, in the political sense of spin. There is a lot I could say about living in London that isn’t true anymore, including the ease with which I moved around as a journalist before violence and fear, and I am sad about that because London is one of the most magnificent, cosmopolitan cities I have ever lived in, and a truly movable feast for a writer.

I value my reputation as a journalist who listens without touting my own ego, and when I returned to New York, I started writing “as told to” stories for women’s magazines, mostly ordinary day-to-day women, and one or two high profile women. So when my agent was approached by the male celebrity’s manager, she thought of me, even though she with-held the details at first, because she didn’t think I’d particularly want to do it if I knew all the details. But I’ll do anything that pays good money and doesn’t compromise my ethical standards. I wouldn’t work with 45, for example, not for a gazillion dollars, but I suppose, dear reader, if you have been reading my blog posts, you already know that. And you also know that 45’s ghost, the guy that wrote “The Art of the Deal,” is now telling all.

I had lived out of the country for a decade so was oblivious to the most recent American celebrities and their travails. I’d written an article about the development of Elmo for a parenting magazine and that was fun because I got to bring my daughter to the set and hang out with all the characters we all love. And those Muppets are celebrities for sure. But this new gig was something else, and something new for me, too. A man by the name of Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo, was losing his audience, aging nervously, and his manager had the idea that he could write a memoir/parenting book to keep the character he’d created alive and earning money. “Captain Kangaroo” had moved from CBS to PBS and Keeshan had kept the rights to the character so no worry there. But even on PBS the show seemed old-fashioned, out of sync with all the fast-paced, high production values of children’s programming; the ratings were in a death throe.

So it was time for a briefing: two writers before me, my agent said, both men, had tried and failed to work with Bob Keeshan. The reason remained mysterious, no one could define it, but like any successful relationship there had to be chemistry, right? Now it was my turn. One of the problems, it seemed, was that Mr. Keeshan thought of himself as a writer and wanted complete control of the process. How would this fly with me?

We’ll see, I said.

The first meeting with my agent and Bob Keeshan’s agent and Bob and me in his manager’s office went well. I wasn’t on tenterhooks at all, nor was Bob. Well, it goes to show that expectations about people hitting it off are never right. And then there was the man-woman rather than the man-man combination. Bob Keeshan was gallant, he was a gentleman, he helped me off with my coat for goodness sake. Everyone...sighed. Most important, we liked each other immediately, said so openly, and were both ready to sign a contract. My name would not appear on the cover, but I’d be in the first line of the acknowledgments. I was now a ghost.

So we made plans. We would meet in his office on 57th Street at least once a week. I would record our conversations and read everything Bob Keeshan had ever written, including his radio and television scripts, and his testimonies in front of Congressional committees advocating for children. I would interview every one who had ever worked with him. He was bitter that Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street) had head hunted most of his old friends who were also his employees, so it was hard to report back to Bob about them, that they were doing so well, that Sesame Street was doing so well. But the more private Bob Keeshan was lost to me, and to his fans, and to television history. No emails or letters or diaries, no interviews permitted with his wife and kids. One day I was so frustrated I had a temper tantrum:

“This book will be remaindered in two weeks in Barnes & Noble.”

He laughed and made a comment about what I was wearing: a white top and pants with a thick black belt. He said it looked like a Karate outfit.

But all the laughter and warm feeling made no difference, he wouldn’t budge, and remained secretive about his family. Or, perhaps, protective. He remained protective.

An editor at Doubleday was assigned, much rewriting was done, a collaboration of three people now, and one year later, we had a book, “Growing up Happy.” I knew that the best parts of Bob Keeshan’s story had hit the cutting room floor as his own parenting struggles were not revealed. Whatever I did find out, I found out by reporting, and not with his permission, always, more by accident, talking to one person, then another. And this is what Bob Keeshan meant when he said he wanted complete control of the process. Nothing must be revealed that he did not want revealed. I was his ghost and, by definition, had to respect his wishes and remain silent. I don’t know if I would have done the same for 45. Probably not.

Summer Sundays

July 9, 2017

My stepfather with my daughter, Chloe. He was my anchor and lodestar. Photo © by Jim Bergman
I haven’t written much about my stepfather over the years—curious in itself—but if it hadn’t been for him I would never have had a memorable childhood summer, or any memorable childhood memories for that matter, or a precocious interest in the etymology of words and language, or courage on the ski slope when I was still too short to use poles, or a lifelong devotion to reading the newspaper and talking intelligently about “current affairs.”

My mother married him when I was four-years-old and always told me—bless her sweet lie—that she chose him just for me. I think I believed her until I was an adult because it certainly seemed that my stepfather –Ernst P. Poll –and I were fated in some way. I started calling him “Dad,” very quickly. My biological father was “Fred,” and the less I saw of him, the better.

From the day we met, until he became too demented to think, my Dad and I both talked about what we were reading and the new words we had learned. He was a native German speaker, had also studied Latin, and was continually improving his English to a self-imposed high standard. His shelves had books in German and English as well as dual-language dictionaries, a huge Webster’s, a two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and law books. He had been a lawyer in Vienna, and though he never practiced law in America, he followed the Supreme Court decisions avidly, as well as American politics. When he picked up the New York Times at the breakfast table, and folded it back in that very adult way, I wanted to do the same, and I did, more or less.

Summer Sundays were luxurious, with the newspaper of record spread out on the wooden picnic table on the screened-in porch in our getaway home in New Jersey (that my stepfather built), my mother tackling the crossword puzzle, my baby sister in a high chair, and the Scrabble set waiting for the arrival of at least one of my stepfather’s brothers and his wife, both of whom had houses nearby. I would watch them play, or retreat to read a book, or ride my bike up the road to visit a friend and play Battleship, which was very boring compared to my discussions with Dad about what was going on in the big wide world.

Girls and their dolls were always boring to me. I was active, physical, what used to be called a “tomboy,” not a moniker I approve of, because I was a girl with athletic skill and an inquisitive mind that should have been rewarded, culturally speaking, but wasn’t when I was growing up in America. Lucky for me, my parents were European, my mother was a doctor, and my stepfather in particular encouraged my questions, my education, and my athletic abilities: ice-skating, tennis, swimming, softball, track. I excelled at all of them. Because of his attention to me personally, and my progress at school, I skipped two grades and entered college—too young—at sixteen. This is not a boast, it’s an origin story reality. I didn’t fit in, I was eager to learn, I could run fast and win races, I did well at school, I wasn’t an ordinary American girl, I became a writer.

I had never considered until just recently how important my stepfather’s gentle, loving, mentoring influence has been on my romantic and writing life. He was an anchor and a lodestar. My first boyfriend had a glove compartment filled with books like Graham Greene’s “The Comedians” which I thought was very sexy. Books-sexy? How do those things go together? Well, they do for me. My husband is an historian and deep political thinker from a renowned journalism family who reads the newspaper every morning cover to cover, albeit electronically. I struggle to keep pace with his incisive interpretations, and only rarely beat him at Scrabble.

WTF: A Personal History of Swearing

June 27, 2017

At the age of sixteen, as I was about to leave for college, my mother and stepfather gave me a lecture about swearing. I was the daughter of professionals, swearing was low-class, they said. Plus, I was a girl. What would the young men I met at mixers think of me?

Until then, my parents had never paid attention to my shits and fucks. I was still very young, had skipped two grades and I knew, even if they didn’t, that the swearing was bravado. I felt taller, older, safer, and more transgressive when I swore, ready to leave home with an arsenal of curses. I didn’t have a Teddy Bear, or a Snoopy, or any other transitional object to sneak under the pillow in my dorm room; swearing was it.

My parents weren’t native English speakers so I deluded myself that there was a chance they didn’t understand these delicious words. I don’t know if my mother ever swore in German or French, her two languages before arriving in America, and it was only years later, when I had acquired some French—merde merde merde—and taken a beginner’s class in German at NYU’s Deutsches Haus, that I figured out something about German I’d never realized: every imperative sounded like a swear word to me—achtung, achtung achtung. Oddly, my teacher was from Salzburg where the German is “soft,” similar to my parents’ cultivated, Viennese German. But that made no difference. The death camps surfaced in my over-active imagination and I couldn’t concentrate. And that is one reason I was there. I wanted to transcend my visceral hatred—and fear—of the German language, my parents’ mother tongue. No wonder they only ever talked to their children in English, I thought, as though the German language itself, its intrinsic, percussive evil-ness, had led to the Holocaust.

I remember the first day of class and the“why are you here?” interrogation. One person was an opera singer—lots of librettos in German—another was a business woman—lots of travel to Germany, another had a new German girlfriend, and so on. Then it was my turn: “How is that most of our English curse words derive from German words and not French words though English has also descended from French ?,” I asked. “Is there an explanation?” I had been working on etymologies for a textbook company and had tinkered with swear words in several languages. I knew I was right, I did not want to be challenged, I lied about why I had registered for the class. Luckily, I was not there to make friends.

At the break, I went out into the hallway and ate a peach to calm myself. There was the teacher right behind me, her hand on my shoulder, gently asking if I was okay. I was not okay. I wish I had been able to use WTF in that moment, but it hadn’t appeared yet in our swearing lexicon. And it’s really very tame, isn’t it, compared to What The Fuck with its implied, rhetorical question mark?

My American Passport: Chapter 2

June 18, 2017

One of the interior "visa" pages in my new passport. Words by Martin Luther King, Jr.
My new passport arrived last week. It looks and feels different than my old passport, which I had to surrender to the State Department. A passport is not a souvenir, it does not belong to us personally, it belongs to the government. And it is now a traceable, electronic document; it has a chip. No wonder it feels different. We all do.

I had never studied the interior (visa) pages of my passport, never read the text from cover to cover, never appreciated its design, or the etchings and quotations. If I were stuck in an elevator with nothing else to read but my passport, there would be plenty to read until the fire department arrived to rescue me. And plenty to think about, too. What has happened to the so-called American dream? Does our Constitution still make sense? What about Lincoln’s words, quoted on the opening page: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Memorized in junior high, I can still easily imagine that great man reciting those incisive words. His words, and all the words in the passport, are not platitudes; they carry weight.

The first American passports were issued during the American Revolution to Benjamin Franklin and his aides as they embarked on their mission to France to raise money and military assistance for the Patriots. Ben Franklin had a printing press, he printed them. They were just a sheet of paper with a description—words only—of the bearer on one side; the description was in French, the diplomatic language. I don’t remember if any women traveled with Franklin—he established a new “family” in London, I recall—but American women were not allowed to carry their own passports until they/we “got” the vote in 1920. I cherish that piece of American history, and I cherish my new passport and what it implies and confers: citizenship and responsibility.

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