instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Blog

The Trump Effect

What kind of times are we living in? If I asked my NYU workshop students this question at the beginning of every session, their answers would probably sound similar. They are distressed, distracted, preoccupied, disappointed, concerned, even frightened, at times. As am I. Close to a primary election, I prevail upon them to vote not vent, or vent and then vote, and then wonder if I have crossed a boundary I should not cross into advocacy, though I know that in journalism and in the classroom neutrality is an illusion. Is there any writer who does not have a point of view? Of course not. Just think about how we frame a story—what to put in, what to leave out. It’s like a photographer who crops an image, or blows out a detail either distorting or eliminating what surrounds it, or emphasizing what matters to us.

Writers can sometimes be elusive and reclusive, or they can be annoyingly engagé
and write only to illuminate, blow the whistle, and persuade. If we read Jonathan Franzen’s fiction, for example, and then shift to his non-fiction essays, we segue from family saga to polemical narrative about environmental degradation, particularly the decimation of bird life. An avid birder, he wants us to share his concern. What matters to him, he hopes, will matter to his readers.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times. Confusing times. It’s our mandate as writers to focus and clarify, reflect accurately, illuminate what’s hidden under the skein of the visible story, not let the tendrils of that skein pull us asunder before we can understand what is going on. Has there ever been such a gathering of intelligent, articulate print and broadcast journalists working as there are today?

My husband is an historian and political scientist and more optimistic than I am about strength of our Republic. He is glued to MSNBC and CNN and all the news and analysis he can read. He has an historian’s perspective and is already writing—in his head, not literally yet—the history of our difficult times as an historian would see it 10-20 years from now. So I count on him to keep events in perspective and to keep me informed. We begin our morning with my question: “Any new developments?” And he gives me the rundown, much of it troubling indeed.

I have zero tolerance for what is happening to our country and for the people in this so-called administration, and what they are doing to our language and to my students—the young ones in particular. Their feeling of hopelessness, their fear for the future, their dangerous new cynicism is new in my classroom. Young people, for the most part are enthusiastic, idealistic, and they cannot abide injustice. Given the opportunity to think and discourse, they question everything. Their silences since Trump was elected is unnerving. It even has a name: the Trump effect. Is this an unintended consequence of the reign of terror Trump and his handlers have unleashed? Or is it a calculated consequence? Are we expected to tremble and stop asking questions? Is there a Gulag waiting for us?

New York Magazine reported recently that 20,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested by ICE in New York City in recent months. Some of these are parents of the ambitious and hard-working Dreamers who have passed through my classroom. I want to scoop them all up and take them home with me. I want to protect them from the anxiety they are all feeling every single day. How can they possibly study?

NYU has a campus in Shanghai. Not long ago the greatest challenge in my workshops were students from China who were quiet in the classroom, who would not speak. The reasons are various—cultural and political, mostly. Now this challenge of privileged, shy Chinese students—most of them children of government officials, seems quaint.

What kind of times am I living in? Zero tolerance times. It’s a law enforcement concept Rudy Giuliani admired and instituted when he was Mayor of New York. I was in New York when the “policy” began, running in Central Park one day when a police car careened down the West Drive and nearly killed me, three pedestrians, two other runners, and a mother pushing a stroller. It didn’t even stop; it kept on going. We exchanged names and phone numbers, caught our breath and shakily went on our way. Only later did I find out that the police were chasing three kids who were selling pot. And that they didn’t even catch them.

Giuliani is 45’s man. What was that I heard about stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship? Did I hear correctly? Did my refugee parents flip over in their graves? Did 45 say it, or 45’s man, the one who had zero tolerance when he was mayor? Mr. Mayor: I have zero tolerance for you.

What kind of times are we living in? Hard times, as Charles Dickens would say. What can we do about it as writers and citizens? Stay awake. Stand up and be counted every single day. Speak out. Rally. Stay focused. Don’t lose heart. Write our hearts out. Vote.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Damsel in Distress

We hadn’t checked our tires since we moved—oh the joys of car care—and on the way back from the gym I noticed that one of them was low. I headed to the closest gas station where air has a price: $1.50 in quarters for five minutes. But that wasn’t my problem; I had quarters stored in the glove compartment. My problem was psychological: I was on my own in a still-strange town, a tire had deflated to 15 lbs., my husband was not around, and despite AAA membership, I suddenly felt vulnerable—a damsel in distress.

The myth of damsels in distress pervades classical literature, painting, sculpture, cinema and every woman’s life into the 20th century, at least. There are many examples, here is just one: A US World War I poster (Harry R. Hopps; 1917) invites prospective recruits to symbolically save a "damsel in distress" from the monstrous Germans. And the monstrous German looks like King Kong who, in turn, looks like a threatening man of color. Say no more re: embedded cultural stereotypes.

The #MeToo movement continues women’s struggle against oppression, violence, abuse, humiliation, workplace discrimination, stereotypical imagery and, yes, distress. The difference now is that women don’t require “saving”; they are saving and empowering themselves.

But we have our retro moments. I could not, absolutely could not stop releasing air from the tire with—you know—the little gage. I went inside the station, forgetting that gas stations are not service stations any more, and said, out loud, to all and sundry paying their bills for chips and candy and gas, “Is there anyone here who can help me put some air into my tires?”

And, lo! a man said, “‘Yes, beautiful lady, of course.”

I swooned.

Short, stocky, mid-50’s maybe and he had an accent. Eastern European was my guess, grew up in a communist regime, has his own business—I was writing his life story--until he bent over and I saw a statement about supporting the Second Amendment on the back of his tee shirt. I asked him about the logo on the front; the sports store he uses, he said. “You can get anything you want there.” Anything meaning guns and ammunition.

“Great,” I said.

In five minutes the tires were done, with a free diagnosis: “ Dry rot in those tires, I’d suggest a set of new ones before the winter.”

Then came a lecture about our beleagured country and the threats we are facing.

“Russian cyber attacks?” I asked.
“No, the Arabs. Why do you think this is a gas station and there are no service stations any more? Those politicians, they know nothing.”
“Oh.”
“And what about killing babies, what about that? They put the vacuum in and suck the baby out.”

I was riveted. It’s not that I haven’t heard these “ideas” before; I have, many times. But there was something about the dissonance between this man’s kindness and his rant that struck me hard. It was a reminder that none of us are all one thing. And that fear runs deep. Because even in the (relative) safety of America, and with a more kindred—albeit fascist, not communist ---politician in the White House, this man was still very afraid.

Dear reader, he was a man in distress.

So I didn’t take anything he said personally, not at all. Beautiful I may be, but I don’t think he “saw” me, or cared about my politics, or where I’m from, or what I do, or my ethnicity. I could have been anyone or I could have been someone, it made no difference. I was a blank screen upon which he projected his terror. I just didn't want to get too close to him when he was carrying a gun. He was probably packing as we stood there talking, or had a weapon concealed in his car.

“Thank you for helping me.” I continued. “You’ve been very kind. I’m heading for Mavis right now to buy a new set of tires. I really do appreciate what you have done for me today.”  Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

The Stallion & The Donkey

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
Once upon a time a black stallion and a donkey lived together in a shed on a horse farm in New Paltz, NY. They lived in perfect harmony with one another, the landscape and their owners. I visited them whenever I walked down Dubois Road, formerly the homestead—twelve generations ago—of Jennifer Dubois Bruntil’s French Huguenot family. I have written about Jennifer’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot,” in a post on May 7 and, since then, have walked the road on Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

The French Huguenots escaped from persecution in France and settled in this magnificent valley in the late 17th century. Despite their own struggles, they became slave owners. Historians at the Huguenot Historic Site (HHS) uncovered a slave register more than a decade ago. It documented what everyone knew: By 1790 there were 302 slaves in New Paltz belonging to 77 families, 13% of the population.

For more information about slavery in the Hudson Valley:

https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/missing-chapter

Currently, there is a controversy on the SUNY campus about removal of Huguenot family names from dormitories—another “monuments” discussion. Decisions are forthcoming in a report that was due in April but has been delayed. Meanwhile, many roads in this town are named after the Huguenot families, including Dubois Road. What will the town do about them, ultimately, I wonder? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a memorial to the slaves who labored here will also be erected. There are many possible solutions. The horse farm has changed hands many times over the centuries, but originally was on the Dubois tract or patent “purchased” from the Esopus tribal sachems. But that is another story.

Echoes of past lives are everywhere here, and so much history that still feels very present, very visible. Devoted New Paltz citizens, descendants of slave-owning families, have inherited some tough history. There is a reckoning now both locally and nationally. I hope it remains civil.

***

I grew up in the city and don’t know anything about horses or donkeys, but I was as captivated by these two gentle creatures living together without discord as I have been by the history of the area. They always came to my call: first the stallion, then the donkey. The stallion was taller than I am, a very large creature indeed. He would broadside his body to the fence, snort a bit, which I took as a greeting, and let me stroke him. I talked to him for a while, he went on his way, and then the donkey arrived. I had never seen a donkey up close before. Those ears and eyes and snout, so adorable. Biblical creatures, they have been used as beasts of burden for 5000 years.

I looked forward to these visits every week and to learning more about the farm, its particular history and its current owners. But this past Saturday, when I returned to the field where the horse and donkey grazed, it was empty, as was the shed. I picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway and walked to the iron gate. There was algae bloom on the pond, the gate was closed with a bungee cord and the greenhouse was overgrown. This farm, like so many in America, is hurting. I soon learned from the grand-daughter of the owners that it is up for sale and that sadly, inexplicably, the beautiful black stallion has died. It wasn’t the heat; they’d been hosing the animals down all day. No, he had an attack of colic—horses cannot vomit to clear their digestive tract—and the vet could not save him. He was only sixteen, which is young for a horse these days.

The owners are bereft, as am I. Before leaving I walked into another field where the lone donkey was grazing peacefully. I don’t know if he feels the loss of his stallion friend—these are human emotions projected onto our beloved animals—but before I walked away I marveled at the dignity and simplicity of their lives.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

Dinosaurs Make Me Laugh

Chris Pratt (Owen) hanging out with little "Blue," a smart and compassionate dinosaur. Courtesy Jurassic World:Fallen Kingdom
It was a serious situation: three years after the destruction of the Jurassic World theme park, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing return to the island of Isla Nublar to save their beloved dinosaurs from a fierce volcano. Just minutes into the film, it seems, they encounter very bad military men with very big guns. Mercenaries! Enter endearing yet terrifying gigunda dinosaurs that have been re-constituted from DNA fossils. Spoiler alert: there’s a grand-daughter who is a clone of her mother.

It was boiling outside, as hot as a volcano, so it seemed like a good idea to get into a cool movie theater in our new little town. It’s tricky parking in the mall lot, the sun beating down, no tall buildings to cast protective shadows. So we covered the front seat with a sheet and entered another world: Jurassic World.

I don’t know why I like these films exactly. Maybe it’s because I like Michael Crichton and was very sad when he died in 2008, too young, at 66. My mother, who was also a physician, loved his books and the first one she handed me was “Andromeda Strain.” I didn’t get most of the science but was riveted by the characters and the story-telling. Like most of Crichton’s adapted- for-film stories, the book is much better.

In his books, Crichton posed serious dilemmas about science and contemporary life—misuses, abuses, the nature of evil. And he wasn’t always politically correct, particularly on environmental issues—but he was an educated, curious, thoughtful man who wrote exceedingly well.

Crichton’s nonfiction collection about his travels (called “Travels”) has been on my NYU reading list forever and students are often surprised it’s there. It’s there because Crichton’s quests were fascinating and the writing is strong.

The movie house was nearly empty and my first thought was: I hope it doesn’t close anytime soon because it is very different watching DNA reconstituted beasts on the big screen, and screaming and sighing and laughing in the company of other fans as vulnerable but brave good and evil characters are shredded, stomped on, badly injured or swallowed in one dinosaur gulp .

My husband tells me I was laughing most of the time. He didn’t have to tell me; I knew it. This movie is well-acted, well-made, diverting, and hilarious.  Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment