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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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Memory Box

Photo of Harmer Johnson © copyright by Judith Johnson

A dear friend, Harmer, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is living, if we can call it that, on a locked floor in a nursing home. Before I moved out of the city and he was moved to the home, I frequently visited him and his wife, my old high school friend, Judy, on Friday nights. We'd have take-out dinner together, chat, and play with their cat. The sorrow of witnessing a steady decline in mental faculties was ever present in our conversation and goodbye hugs. When I left I wondered if Harmer would recognize me the next time I arrived, but this was a small, private concern compared to that of his wife and three children. Our ties have always been close, almost like family. Harmer and Judy's eldest grew up with our daughter. They went to the same nursery school, played together, kept in touch.

 

Harmer is British, originally from Faversham, near Canterbury, and when we lived in London, before our children were born, we saw Harmer and Judy when they stayed with his family, usually in the summer. His parents were warm, lovely people, and we enjoyed every moment of our visits with them.  

 

There is so much to say about this beautiful man; my memory box is overflowing. I don't want to talk about him in the past tense, not yet, though I know that his verbal acuity is fading fast, and that a memory box is, by definition, in the past tense, even when the person is still alive in body, and in spirit, too, because I do believe that even in this fading away an essence of a person survives that we can continue to feel and cherish.

 

Harmer was a writer as well as a well-known, highly regarded auctioneer and art appraiser. What happens to a writer who loses language? I can't think about this question, it is too terrifying. I never knew Harmer "scribbled," as he called it, until I mentioned I was forming a writer's group. He joined for a while and we shared work over lunch from time to time. We talked about our manuscripts, we talked about our children,  we talked about the political landscape, we talked about the environment. Harmer was "environmentally conscious," before anyone else I knew was environmentally conscious. We went on a whale watch together with our kids and I learned, quickly, that the dolphins were endangered by tuna nets and that the oceans were polluted. Harmer was more of a guide and mentor on that voyage than the captain of the ship who spent the hours we were at sea blasting cheerful ephemera into the loudspeaker.

 

Empathetic, cultivated, thoughtful, charming, a gentle man, a gentleman, rarely careless of others that I can ever recall, a tennis player, a collector of Olympic memorabilia, an avid reader, a scribbler, a devoted father and husband and son and brother.

 

I was determined to see him in the nursing home, though I dreaded the concept of a locked floor, however necessary, however protective, as Alzheimer's patients wander. Still, it felt like an incarceration to me. I hoped that Harmer would not know that it was a locked space, that he would already be so far gone that there would be no knowing this, no understanding that he'd be alone in the dark at night far away from his loved ones.

 

 It had been almost a year and Judy warned me that I might not recognize him, that he might not recognize me. We arrived during a chair exercise class, Harmer trying to follow along.  He looked deceptively like the man I remembered, the man in my memory box, but he missed all the beats and raised his left hand instead of his right and his right hand instead of his left. We met him in his room, which Judy had painstakingly straightened and organized as we waited for his arrival from the class. His expression was gleeful as he saw me, or was that my imagination? We hugged. My first words were, "I've missed you, Harmer." And he replied, "I've missed you, too."

 

Later, as Judy spoke to a social worker, I sat next to Harmer, put my arm around his shoulders and said, " How are you feeling?" And he said, "I am feeling sad. I am feeling bored." And then we both began to cry. Over lunch at a local diner he tried to say my name, but had to be reminded. Sentences began and then drifted away; Judy completed them. He ate more than I had ever seen him eat and he told an odd story about staying in control of something that has happened. "Oh, so you can control it," I said. "Yes," he answered. He wasn't distraught, he was satisfied that I had understood.

 

On the way back, walking in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air, he constantly veered to the right with his walker and we made a joke of it until, finally, he almost drifted into the street, oncoming cars rushing by, and we had to rescue him.

 

Outside the doors of every room, an enfiladed hallway, are small vitrines, family-made memory boxes for every resident of the home, reminders to their loved ones of who they used to be once upon a  time, of what they looked like when young and hopeful. There is no future tense here, no becoming, no aspiration. The enfiladed hallway, the vitrines, are not memory boxes so much as memorials, sentinels on the way to a final resting place. 

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Before Photography

Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (active ca. 1467–ca. 1524), Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right, ca. 1500, red chalk on paper. The Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.35:1, Gift of János Scholz. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2018.
 
 

I went to the Morgan to see an exhibition of  early Italian drawings by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and others. The Morgan gallery is small, which is one reason I like it. I meander slowly, digesting  the art in small doses. I take notes. I might write down the name of an artist and the title of a work I like, or I might write a sentence that has nothing to do with the work at all. I am not gathering any data, or conducting interviews, or acquiring knowledge in preparation for a test. I am totally free, drifting in and out of the galleries. I prefer to go alone and only rarely make a date with a friend. By the time I leave, I am not only relaxed, I am restored.

 

Before photography. I kept thinking of that as I wandered through the Morgan. These drawings, mostly portraits, were drawn from real life. And the people who sat for the portraits were once alive. I was a bit spooked by that notion, but transported also. The features were vivid, palpable—cheeks and lips and eyes. I began to imagine their lives—how they lived and what they said to their loved ones first thing in the morning. These drawings are not only artistic renderings created for pleasure and decoration, they are a document of past lives. I am curious about those lives, or the life of the artist, or the artist's process, which is so analogous to a writer's process, and often do some reading after an exhibtion to supplement the visit. The experience of the exhibition and the reading may get folded into a piece of writing, or not.

 

Art has always been my second love next to writing. I think the reason is that my father dragged me to art galleries all over New York City from a very young age. We would stand in front of the painting and he would try to describe how it was made—the medium, for example—or how it made him feel. Sometimes he was at a loss for words and would just sigh or stand quietly for a long time. I was never restles; I felt safe, engaged. My father was a surgeon, and like many surgeons, had dexterous hands and drew well himself. Once I found a stash of his sketch books and wanted to keep them. He wouldn't let me, so I put them back on the shelf, reluctantly. He gave me my own sketchbook and I tried to draw  but did not have the gift. I took classes and even applied to Music & Art High School, and failed. I wonder if my father was disappointed. I never had a chance to ask him.  I became a writer instead and try to draw well with words.

.

 

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Quiet Resistance

Otto and Elise Hampel were a working class couple living in Berlin during the Nazi reign of terror. He was a factory worker, she was a domestic. They were Nazi sympathizers, or Nazi sympathizers by default, if that is possible. Let's just say that they did not know any better at the time. Sound familiar? After Elise's brother  was killed in action in France in 1940, they woke up. Something was wrong, they decided. But what?

 

Uncultured and semi-literate in a culture that was noted for its literary masterpieces, the Hampels began to scratch their own version of resistance propaganda on more than 200 postcards, which today would read like sophisticated agitprop. The messages were simple, yet forceful, despite many grammatical errors and misspellings. They admonished ordinary citizens to protest the war machine by not serving in the German Army and refusing to donate to Nazi organizations. Though the Gestapo was everywhere, the Hampels scattered the postcards in mailboxes, stairwells and other locations all over Berlin. Resistance had taken hold of the Hampels and they hoped that their non-violent action would inspire others. It did not. Most people who found the postcards handed them to the Gestapo and the Hampel's were eventually caught. In 1943, they were both executed by guillotine. Their story was unknown until Rudolf Ditzen, aka Hans Fallada, was given their Gestapo file by a poet friend working for the Soviets just after the war. Fallada was smitten with the Hampels and wrote a novel about them in just 24 days called, "Every Man Dies Alone." Published in 1947, it became an instant best seller and has now been adapted into a movie, "Alone in Berlin," which I watched the other night on Netflix. Although it takes some liberties with the facts, the basic story is there, the dignity of the couple beautifully portrayed by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Some of my favorite young German actors are in it also, most notably Daniel Brühl and Katharina Schüttler.

 

Thinking about the Hampels as exemplars of extraordinary courage, my mind drifted to the silent, complicit majority in the United States Senate. They remain unmoved by the atrocities of the current administration and will be remembered as politicians who have damaged and disgraced our democracy.

 

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Family Narratives

I used to have a business called "Lifesounds." Using my journalist's interviewing and radio production skills, I captured family stories at the request of the families, for a fee. I turned over the raw interviews, or edited them down onto CD's to be presented as gifts at special occasions, or as legacy keepsakes. Often a family had the expectation that a trained reporter could pierce silence, or correct an apocryphal story that had become embedded in family lore over many decades, the fabrications embroidered with every telling. Not that this is a bad thing, from a writer's point of view, so long as we accept that we are listening to tall tales at times. Sometimes a family does not realize that this has happened. They've heard stories they find fascinating and they innocently pass them along without asking too many questions.

 

So my job was difficult-- not logistically, or technically—but for all the other reasons, as mentioned above. I wasn't always a welcome interlocutor, a stranger digging into the past and to what end? To correct the historical record? Or to satisfy a family's frustration at not knowing "the truth?"

 

 Once I was commissioned to interview an Irish-American woman turning 80 who had been a nanny to the family's children. They were planning a birthday party and the interview would be a gift, they explained. Everyone had adored her, but knew very little about her. They suspected she had been hiding something, but what?  They wanted her story badly; they were so curious it hurt. Though I suspected there might be a problem, I made the call to set up the first interview and was invited over immediately. Tea was offered. We made ourselves comfortable. The nanny was affable and she was Irish; oral storytelling is in Ireland's DNA. She talked and she talked. It was a good story. But as I started to store my equipment she told me that I couldn't release the interview until she was dead. This was a conundrum. Her former employer had hired me and she had consented. The interview was done. But she was so adamant that I turned back the advance. I still have that CD stored in a box somewhere.

 

I would wager that within every family there are so many buried stories and secrets that, once unearthed, they could fill libraries. They often remain untold and unexplored. In their place are false stories, evasions, the lacuna of unanswered questions, ellipsis. These gaps create tension in a family, and also curiosity, which is why I started "Lifesounds," as a tool to fill in gaps and find answers to troubling questions. Of course, not all the gaps are sad or troubling; they can be happy gaps, or humorous gaps, or just unintended gaps. That is why Henry Louis Gates' program, "Finding Your Roots," is so successful. The past is a treasure trove, the revelations both illuminating and life-affirming for his guests and his audience.

 

Everyone has a right to with-hold their stories though I always try to convince people I interview, and my family as well, that it is unwise, even unkind to do so. We are living in an era of obfuscation, lies, and brazen hatreds, openly expressed. More than ever before, I consider it my responsibility, as a reporter and a writer, to assert authenticity as a moral value.

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Green Book

Everyone is raving about "Green Book," and for all the seemingly "right" reasons I won't reiterate here as we are sure to hear them ad infinitum in the run-up to the Oscars. The film is nominated in five categories: Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Film Editing. Not bad.

 

Why, then, am I so disappointed, so concerned? "Green Book" is a Hollywood movie, after all, and they—the producers, the money men and women—will usually make market-driven, star-studded choices. Screen writers are instructed to make changes, a mostly hidden process. (Note that there were three screenwriters on this project, which is not unusual.) With "sensitive" subjects such as race and sexual orientation, especially when they are combined, as in this story—the screenwriter is slave--yes slave-- to the director and the producers and the money men and women. How do I know this? My husband is in the business, so to speak. He watched helplessly as one of his teleplays was ripped to shreds and then abandoned because it was too "sensitive" on the issue of adoption.

 

There is so much money in Hollywood that some screenwriters make their living off option money and never see a screenplay or teleplay produced. My husband backed away, though he still has a project cooking. The constant cycle of expectation and disappointment, of not owning one's own work, is far from glamorous.

 

So now we have a story, a period piece, set in the 1960's, that is both educational for those who have not lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and Romantic. In my view, it is essentially a love story. As we see the relationship between the two male leads evolve--and why is Ali considered a "supporting" actor, I wonder?—we learn their backstories. There are many car scenes where important conversations unfold, some of which are humorous, some not so humorous, some predictable. Thinly scripted, they leave the two outstanding actors with too little material to work with as character devolves into stereotype and then caricature. I cringed during the cartoon Italian-American Christmas scene, but was relieved the film was over. Thank goodness for the scroll at the end with solid, documentary information and real-life pictures.   

 

Don Shirley was a brilliant, erudite, courageous musician who suffered greatly during Jim Crow, and then de facto segregation, north and south. His story, his music, and his legacy, deserve better.

 

 

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The Birth of a Theater

photo: courtesy Denizen Theatre

The theater is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time.

--Stella Adler

 

          This past summer, a black box theater went up adjacent to the parking lot of Water Street Market in New Paltz, New York. New Paltz is a small town (population  approximately 14,000)  in upstate New York—exit 18 on the Thruway on the West side of the river—and, like all towns, has a culture particular to the town and its European settler and slave-owning history. As a newcomer, resident for less than a year, I was still trying to decipher the mores of the community when construction of the theater began. Most egregious to any outsider—or  new insider—are the odd demographics of the town: The SUNY New Paltz campus is diverse; the town itself is not.

 

           I had written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal about a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus. The controversy is an a echo of the monuments discussion we are having in the country:  2,000 students had signed a petition after African-American students voiced their discomfort at sleeping in buildings named after slave-owning families. And though the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers all owned slaves, the town celebrates the French Huguenot settlers with an historic site; many streets in New Paltz are also named after them. It's a difficult ancestry, one not chosen by descendants still living in the town. Discussions are charged. Or there is silence, or avoidance, or anger. Facebook pages, in particular, attract thoughtless, ignorant venom. The urban open-ness and respectful discourse I have been familiar with all my life is absent here , as in our nation at large for that matter. Can a new theater encourage a healing, inclusive spirit, I wondered, as Greek theater of ancient times? Or will it reinforce insularity and provincialism, prejudice and divisiveness, by appealing only to an elite who can afford the seats?

 

***

 

          Water Street Market, built on the site of an old lumber yard near the Wallkill River, is now in its 20th year. It's especially congenial in the summer months with outdoor seating areas, boutiques, and various food options. It attracts tourists, but also residents. I've hung out there, met people, and been grateful for the communal space. But when the construction of the theater began, I heard grumblings, dismissive guffaws, and bewilderment. Harry Lipstein, the owner and developer of the market and the new theater, was blamed for the disruption. Questions, as shallow and vicious as town gossip over a white picket fence, were voiced openly: Is this theater a tax write-off for Harry Lipstein or a cultural give-back to a community? Will the theater be sustainable, or is it a vanity project of some sort that he'll  pour money into forever? Will the prices be low enough? Why isn't he building a cinema instead? And what about the parking lot above the market, the one we use? What about that? Will he be taking it over for the theater? And so on.  

      

***

         

       I have interviewed many people over the years but never a man who closed his eyes as he thought about my questions, or began to cry as he answered them. So I was a bit taken aback when Harry Lipstein, worry beads on his right wrist, closed his eyes and wept at the memory of his painful childhood in Queens, NY—an alcoholic father who abandoned his first family, and a bi-polar mother. The ellipsis in the recording of our conversation tells its own story: silent moments as memories surfaced, including what he calls his first acting job with his sister at age 4  as they created a make-believe "normal" family. I asked if the story he'd just told me was off the record and he said, " I'm an open book." 

          We were sitting in a work room between the theater and the lobby and were interrupted often: the stage manager, a photographer, Harry's artist wife, Wendy. Lipstein's long, lithe body outsized the folding chair, sliding this way and that in an athletic restlessness. His face is tanned and angular, framed with a thick shock of black hair. No publicist was around to control the flow of stories and this was refreshing for a seasoned reporter. At the same time I worried when I was asked if I'd like to become a "Denizen Insider?" @ $55 per year.  Not a question to ask a reporter. Naive enthusiasm, I thought, and said, gently, "That would be a conflict of interest."

 

          I got a press ticket for the second play of the season, "Adaptive Radiation," by Hannah Benitez. During my first foray into the intimate space of the theater, designed by Lipstein, who is also an accomplished architect, I was less interested in the play than the experience of watching a play in close quarters with actors and audience, "denizens" of the community as we are now called, thus Denizen Theatre, a utopian vision. The building is aesthetically pleasing, inside and out, and environmentally conscious—as little paper as possible, just a pull down screen with all the information one usually finds in a printed program, a blanket of green planted on the roof, "and insects, too," Lipstein adds. He has never written a play, but was smitten with the theater about seven years ago when his wife suggested he take an acting class. Since then, he's acted, directed and opened two black-box theaters, the first in Sarasota, Florida where he has a second home. That explains the winter tan.

 

          "In life, most of us play personas," he says earnestly. "Very little of our life is spent in truth—it happens with loved ones—not as much as we want. Actors that are vulnerable, give a part of themselves, regardless of the role..." He drifts off, taking a breath, closing his eyes.

 

          My appreciation of Harry Lipstein deepened at an event in the lobby of the theater a few days later which he hosted with his two thirty-something co-artistic directors, Ben Williamson and Brittany Poira, both MFA graduates from Florida State University. They are  engaging, social media savvy, gracious , friendly  and as energetic as Lipstein, or perhaps he is as energetic as them. The father of four grown children—two boys and two girls—it seems that the theater is yet another family Lipstein has created and nurtured, the perfect antidote to his own, long-ago lost family. But perhaps I am interpreting too much and the theater is just a theater. Either way, it's obvious that Lipstein loves what he is doing, that his effort is sincere.

 

          It was a gracious, pleasant evening, painted guitars hanging on the walls above our heads, a thematic curation inspired by the third and final play of the season, "The Arsonists," by noted playwright, Jacqueline Goldfinger. I arrived for the dress rehearsal on a frigid and squally night as the play's fire roared. The space had been reconfigured and the set was compelling. My first thought was that it must have been expensive.

 

          The continuing success of regional theater depends on many things: solid, interesting plays (contemporary, classic, or classic reimagined), good actors, a committed local audience, but, most of all, money. The economics of live theater production are daunting; the first three plays at Denizen cost more than $90,000 to produce and the artistic co-directors do not, as yet, even have medical benefits. Workers need to be sustained also, of course, especially if they are not native to the area. Young people move on easily, and a life in the theater is, by definition, peripatetic. When I asked Brittany about medical benefits she said, "We're working on it."

 

           In this era of searing cutbacks in arts funding, New Paltz is blessed with a wealthy, caring benefactor. Let us hope that Denizen Theatre becomes both financially viable and well integrated into the community in the months ahead. We need it.

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When a Book Still Has Legs

 Last week, I received an email from 91-year-old Joy Rubin in Buxton, Maine:

 

I have just read ["Searching for Fritzi"]  your moving account of your mother's courage in dealing with Fritzi and visiting Vienna. We knew Fritzi Russell from 1974 until her death in 1999. Her only allusion to her life in Vienna was one mention that her father had restricted her activities when she was growing up, insisting that she had to practice skating.   

 

"Searching for Fritzi," was originally published in 1999. It is, therefore, remarkable that I occasionally still receive news of my mother's champion ice-skating cousin, Fritzi Burger, from people who knew her, or knew someone who knew her. Last year an email arrived from a former tennis partner of Fritzi's who had met her in Tokyo at a posh club. The year before that I had an extended correspondence with a scholar in Berlin. The editor of Skateguard, published in Nova Scotia by Ryan Stevens, interviewed me in 2016 and wrote a long piece about the book. And now Joy and her husband, Marvin, have contacted me. They met Fritzi during the last chapter of her life in America. They knew her socially, Joy explained, as well as Fritzi Burger would allow herself to be known. Was I interested in hearing some details about her life in Maine? Although the answer to that question is yes and no—as  I will explain—I  am always polite and attentive when a reader contacts me. An email contact often leads to a telephone conversation.  I listen with rapt attention, I take notes, I ask a question or two. But there isn't anything I've heard in recent years about Frtizi Burger that has changed my mind about her.

 

Fritzi Burger, Olympic silver medallist, was a collaborator during the war, married to a Japanese national close to the Emperor. She spent the war years in Tokyo in relative luxury, never making any effort to help her European family escape the genocide, though she would have been well placed to do so. These discoveries shook my family, especially my mother, who did not want me to write the book before or after I discovered where Fritzi had been during the war. She knew Fritzi was a snob, a woman with guile, and didn't think she was "worth it."  I persevered, I could not stop. The search for Fritzi Burger became a metaphor for my murdered family.

                                                            

I wrote back to Joy Rubin and made a plan to talk on the phone. She hadn't read the addendum which was published in the revised e-book—more revelations about Fritzi during the post-war years in Tokyo—so  I sent it to her in a PDF file. 

 

          "Your book answered a lot of questions about Fritzi," Joy told me. "She never mentioned her Jewish ancestry.We even had her over for Passover one year."

 

My ambivalence softened, curiosity kicked in, as Joy continued:  Fritzi had a vegetable garden, she brought over recipes, had dinner parties. The bathroom in her Gorham house was all light blue with a bidet, which was unusual in America. She served Mongolian Hot Pot, also unusual, with pieces of meat dipped in hot oil. She had an odd way of sitting, like a teenage girl, with one leg under the other. Her son, Yoshi, learned English from Armed Forces Radio in Tokyo and he sounded and acted very American. She never reminisced. She lived in the present. She had a grand-daughter. 

 

          "I thought she had a grandson," I said.

 

          "No a grand-daughter, Michelle Nishikawa.  She lives in Southern California."

 

          "She is carrying the name of that prominent Japanese family," I said.  "Mikimoto-Nishikawa. Mikimoto Pearls. Close to the Emperor. I wonder if she knows the history. I wonder if she knows about my book."

 

 Needless to say, I Googled Michelle and found her on Linked In and Facebook. I left a message on her work phone. But she has not, as yet, replied. 

 

Will these quests and inquiries ever end, I wonder? Should  they end?  And what have we learned that we can pass on to future generations? Forgiveness, for example. Can there ever be forgiveness?  As a writer, I am not obligated to answer these questions. My only obligation is to find the story and write it, as fully and truthfully as I can.

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Dispatch From the Arctic

With thanks to my Canadian cousin, Sherry, for these toasty mittens. Photo © Carol Bergman 2019

I had a dream when I was twenty-two that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth.

 

--Sir Ernest Shackleton

 

The story of the storm is not over; we are now living in the Arctic. I suppose we had been warned-- not warmed, but warned-- that climate change creates changes in the ozone layer, therefore the polar vortex is rotating at ever faster speeds, or perhaps it is slower speeds. (I do wish that scientists would translate their findings into accessible language and simple sentences.) I have been reading about the polar vortex for several days, trying to comprehend, and now the vortex is in my face. The temperature upon exiting our complex this morning to brave a drive to the local gym was 0 degrees. The car started up okay—with a bit of protest, more like a cough, I'd say. A local friend texted to say she'd arrived at the gym, the roads were okay, the parking lot a bit "slippery." Good news, more or less, if what she means by slippery is what I mean by slippery.  "Warm up your car, leave it running," she suggested. "Walk away, come back in a few minutes, no one will steal it."  So that's what I did.

 

One small problem:  I couldn't get the car door open again. Did everyone hear me when I shouted expletives that ricocheted across the mountains? I think so. A helpful neighbor came out of his apartment. And he was laughing, but very kind. I had a second key, the lock was completely iced-over and with a flick he opened the door and said, "Your first winter. You'll get used to it." Goodness, he didn't even have on a warm coat. His hands were bare.

 

Well, I was lucky to get the car out at all. Several in our lot were still completely iced in. If you have never seen icing on a car, you are in for a treat. It's really quite beautiful.  Yesterday, as the storm abated, several tenants worked on loosening their cars from the vortex knowing full well we'd have trouble again in the morning. Still, we persisted. Implements included ergonomic shovels and hardy scrapers. My husband, Jim, was particularly good at the ice knocking and ice scraping. "The air is so fresh," he said. "Right," I said. "Let's keep moving, shall we, and get back upstairs pronto."

 

And none too soon. Our new wind-breaking, layered, waterproof jackets were frozen solid. 

 

 

 

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Storms

Emergency Preparedness Still LIfe

I have just returned from my second emergency preparedness expedition. I had bought a new flashlight and 8-hour dripless candles and some more water and boiled up eggs and did the laundry the other day. Eileen, at a local family-owned hardware store, took me round the shop personally. We told many stories along the way: city vs. country living. Her husband still commutes. And she was very reassuring. But I had realized that all my electronic devices—yikes—all of them would be shut down if there is an outage unless they were juiced-up, not to mention our electric stove, the water pumps for the two wells on the property and so on. So, this morning, a second expedition. I needed to get more bananas, some humuus, etc. etc. and to gas-up along the way. (Thank you for the reminder about the gas, dear city friend.)   I folded in a quick work-out as the gym  will close early today and probably not reopen until late Monday! Okay, good, done that. Now I'll go for a walk on the River to Ridge Trail to store up some fresh air. I hate being stuck in. Temps are predicted to drop on Sunday night to the single digits and below. No heat if we have a power outage, much less walks! My daughter and son-in-law, who live thirty minutes away in the mountains, wrote to say they'd come down in the truck to rescue us, if necessary. They have a wood stove and two cuddly huge dogs for warmth.

 

All set, right? 

 

Writers are both blessed and cursed with vivid imaginations—we project, we say "what if?" to get our stories going, we obsess about first drafts and the sentences that surface in our over-active brains as we wake in the morning, or, if we are writing nonfiction, about the questions we will ask if we are interviewing someone that day. We try to get our thoughts down and feel relieved when they make sense. Live in the moment? You must be kidding me. I've got the add-on of refugee PTSD panic, escape from a war zone embedded in my psyche, and the necessity—to feel safe—of preparing for all eventualities. I remember the day when my California-born, laconic husband noticed this about me. I had never told him and don't parade it around much even today except in therapy sessions; now here I am writing about it. Why should I be embarrassed?  Why is this characteristic a negative when I am able, thankfully, to use it in my work? Rhetorical questions. I'm writing this blog post. I'm ready for the storm.

 

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