Hashtags, Tweets and Blogs

April 28, 2017

My first hashtag: #mentaldetoxspringrenewal . Photo by Carol Bergman
I think I just wrote my first hashtag: #mentaldetoxspringrenewal. I sent it to my daughter. I wanted to show off. Now I am wondering why I resisted hashtags until this moment and why, suddenly, I wanted to write a hashtag. Are they contagious? And where on earth did the word hashtag came from and who was the first to use one? The answers to these questions are in a Wikipedia entry, and they are complicated. Suffice to say—in measured narrative prose—that hashtags have #takenofflikewildfire. Now is that a sentence or a real meta data hashtag? Neither, I’d say.

I vividly remember resisting –and eventually surrendering—to Facebook. Surrender finally came when I “found” my college room-mate and an old boyfriend. I wrote blog posts about my resistance and surrender and figured out a way to beat abbreviated posts: I only write full sentences, and more than one. Sometimes I post a photo and write a story—yes, a full story—to caption the photo. It’s good writing practice.
I now have three Facebook sites, use them to advertise my workshops, my publications and my publishing company, and friend people who I meet casually here and there. I even friended my bank manager recently. He was interesting. I write notes and blog posts and participate in a lot of political discourse these days. I follow, unfollow, de-friend and de-capitate only occasionally. Dear reader, please don’t do that to me.

Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and many other challenging books, loves hashtags and she loves tweeting. I heard her talk about it at a PEN conference maybe five years ago, but I still didn’t get it. By then I had a Twitter account but never used it except to watch, supinely, as my FB Carol Bergman: Writer posts fed into it. Once in a while I received a notice that someone was trying to contact me through Twitter, and only then did I pay attention. I still don't tweet but if you tweet me, I will twitter like a bird.

As for hashtags, I don’t think I will surrender until I can figure out a way to use them that satisfies me as a writer. I don’t want my narrative brain to atrophy and I don’t want my students to communicate with me or each other in sound bytes or 140 characters. When and if you have the pleasure of walking into my classroom, this is what you will hear from me on the first day: We’re writers. It’s our mandate to preserve our language and participate, fully, in its evolution.

Meet Charlie

April 18, 2017

Charlie & his books, between 67'th & 68th on Columbus Ave. Photo by Carol Bergman
I was walking down Columbus Avenue when I saw Charlie’s books neatly piled on a table. Charlie is a fixture in this upper west side Manhattan neighborhood, more so now that the Barnes & Noble a couple of blocks down has become a Century 21. I miss that Barnes & Noble. It was on a clear cut between my debark from the C train to my gym at 63rd.

I had just been in a café reading my students’ interview assignments. I’d sent them out into the city to meet a stranger and get their story. Everyone has a story, see what you can find out, I said. Don’t talk about yourself. This isn’t about you, it’s about someone else.

Any community is a treasure trove of interesting people. Writers don’t have to go far to exercise their curiosity and heightened sensitivities. The other day, getting my car oil changed and inspected at an upstate mechanic near my daughter and son-in-law’s house, I met a fourth-generation farmer who just had his fourth great grand-child. He’d voted for Trump and I wanted to know why. What is it about his life that sent him down that electoral path? His truck was ready before my car, but at least I got some of the story, not enough to write anything just yet, but enough to spur me to find out more. I wrote about the conversation in my journal and mentally filed it away, to be continued.

Now there was Charlie on the street, a man and his books I’d passed a hundred times, maybe more, on my way to the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble, but never stopped. I figured those neatly piled books of his were dirty—god knows where they’d come from, maybe loaded with bed bugs, I thought, and I've had enough of those, thank you. I would have passed by again, but my phone vibrated and I stopped to pick it up right in front Charlie and his books. I clicked off the call and started looking through the books. When there are books in front of me, especially in such close proximity, I look. The first that caught my eye was “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” one of my favorites. I have a hardback copy, too big to carry around, and I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while. And because I can’t seem to read literary fiction on my Kindle anymore, I’ve been buying more paperbacks.

Charlie was right there behind my shoulder. I could smell his cigar and see the smoke. So I asked him to pull out the book. It was pristine. Never cracked.


“How much?”
“Three dollars.”
“Take five,” I said.

Then he stood next to me as I flipped through it again. Lo (or LOL), it wasn’t completely pristine, I’d missed an inscription:

"Dear Yasmina,

May you have many nights of reading yourself to sleep, and may we always share among many other things this love of good books.

With nothing but love,
R"

“Well, I guess that relationship is over,” I said. “How did this book get here? “
“No idea,” Charlie said.
“Yasmina gave away a book with a very intimate inscription. Or maybe she died. Was this an estate sale book?”

My imagination was already clicking over. If Yasmina had died—Yasmina are you out there reading this blog post?—why did her loved ones give away this inscribed book? How callous, I decided.

Charlie took the fifth. No comment. Time for me to ask him a question or two.

“So where do you get your books?”
“All over.”
“And what did you do before you sold books here?”
“I read.”
“And how long have you been selling books here?”
“Twenty years.”
“And are you still reading?”
“Yes.”
“Have you got any Graham Greene?”
“Let me have a look.”


As he was searching, it was as though he was stepping into his books, possessing them. He belonged to them, they belonged to him, he belonged to this street, this neighborhood, this city. “No Graham Greene,” he said. Then he offered his hand. “Charlie,” he said. “My name is Charlie.”

"Oslo": Is It a Play?

April 11, 2017

Tags: Lincoln Center Theater, Oslo Accords, Rabin & Arafat

I went to see “Oslo,” by J.T. Rogers when it was still in previews at the Lincoln Center Theater. The advance press was intense. Rave Reviews. I was disappointed—an understatement—perhaps one of the few that evening who was not applauding or sighing with relief at the promise of “hope” in the Middle East. We need more than hope or sentimental plays right now to set the world straight. And so I was doubly surprised when some of my internationally astute Facebook friends praised this play. Perhaps we are all so down-in-the-dumps these days that any glimmer of “hope” is welcome, even in a play that doesn’t work as a play.

Forgive me, dear Reader, but “Oslo” is not a theatrical experience, it is a soapbox experience about back-channel meetings early in 1993 while the First Intifada was still raging. The meetings culminated in a handshake on the White House Lawn between Arafat and Rabin, President Clinton presiding. Rabin was assassinated two years later. Much has been written about all of this, most notably in an article in The New Yorker by Connie Bruck which is informative without distortion or polemics:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/14/the-wounds-of-peace

The end of the “ handshake,” as the rapprochement came to be known, led eventually to the Second Intifada and to the upsurge of violence and despair today. This is the unexpressed undertow in the play. So why was the audience laughing?

I looked at the stage, I looked around at my fellow theater- goers. The actors were bored with the pedestrian script, I decided, and they were grandstanding to amuse themselves, stay awake, and remember their lines during a very long and wordy play. As for the audience, they seemed relieved to be feeling something.

Though based on historical research, the play is imbalanced. The most important characters were not the Palestinian and Israeli delegates, but the Norwegian couple who persuaded them to attend the talks –Mona Juul, then an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen, who was director of the Fafo Institute for Applied Social Sciences. This couple deserve a medal for what they accomplished in Oslo: they kept the talks secret, and defied the expectations of the meddling Americans, among others. But they are oddly absent in the play except as foils.

What if this play had been told from diplomat Mona Juul’s point of view? Or even her husband’s? Or both of them? Now that would have been an interesting play. This one isn’t.

My Mother's Library

April 3, 2017

Tags: Refugees, asylees, the EU

My mother, Gerda, as a young woman in Vienna. She arrived in America as a refugee.
She died at 99 holding a book. Not literally so, but metaphorically speaking, she was a free-thinking person of the book and interested in all books, all people, all of life, everywhere. She was difficult, opinionated, even prejudiced occasionally, but she usually returned to knowledge and tolerance. She was an enlightened, educated, emancipated, complicated woman.

She was fully conscious to the end, thinking about and verbalizing her experience. She lay in her hospice bed, her family around her, observing her own death, talking about it to us and to herself in an inward reflection. “I’m dying,” she said. She instructed the nurses to give her more morphine, or less. We played her music, put buds in her ears, read poetry to her. She wanted to wait for one of her grand-children to arrive from Wyoming, she said, clearly. As a physician, she understood the power and solace of morphine, how it could be used to control one’s last breath, or delay it. She consulted my sister and her husband, also both physicians, but this was pro forma. She didn’t really need them. She knew what she wanted, she was in control, she had come to the end of a long and eventful life, she was regnant upon her hospice bed.

Her father, my Czech grandfather, was a traveling salesman who traveled from Vienna to Yugoslavia to sell high-end leather gloves. My mother adored him—she was an only child—and dreaded his departures. The promise of a gift upon his return soothed her. It was always a leather-bound book, inevitably a classic. By age 10, my mother had her own library and become an avid reader. In America, in my childhood home, there were bookshelves in every room, the library organized by subject and author. My stepfather had his own shelves, his own interests: dictionaries, history, Goethe and Heine in German. My mother never read a word of German once she was on American soil. She spoke English, she spoke French and that was enough once she’d disembarked. It was odd and troubling, at times, how she’d rejected her mother tongue.

Often, I’d want to borrow a book and if I took it off the shelf and held it in my hand, she’d become agitated. Books were her totems. The library held life together, it was a commentary on the past and present, perhaps even the future. If it was disturbed, I thought, this held-together world might collapse as it had in Europe when the war began, and all was left behind, so many loved ones murdered. So I was careful, I always asked, I always returned books to their proper place on the shelf and rarely took one away. Which probably explains why my mother constantly bought me books and insisted that I read them right away so we could have a discussion about them. Many were duplicates of the books on her own shelves, and though this may seem profligate, it was not profligate; it was necessary.

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