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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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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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Big Stories

Big stories are embedded in our childhood landscapes. This is Mount Tabor.

Big Story # 1: A locker-room acquaintance is grieving for her mother and feeling perplexed that they were not close. She never could understand why the mother-daughter connection was always acrimonious, why her mother was, at times, cruel. What had happened? The search for an answer to this question is the beginning of a very big story that, hopefully, will be integrated into Sally's memoir. Previously unknown details are surfacing as far-away family visits, photographs are scanned and shared, memories untangled.

 

There had been a smallpox outbreak in the city in 1947, mothers sent home, their newborns left in the hospital as they had no immunity and could not be vaccinated.  Bottle feeding was in high fashion after WW II and breast feeding frowned upon.  So the babies were left behind bereft of their mothers and breast-milk immunity if their mothers had been vaccinated. More than 6 million New Yorkers were vaccinated during that epidemic; twelve died. It was the last smallpox outbreak in the city, historic for that reason alone. Eventually all those newborns were released from the hospital but by then the mother-baby bond had been compromised, not for everyone, of course, but in some instances. And this unearthed not-so-small fact is illuminating, the beginning of a big story. Everyone has one buried somewhere,  either within our own families, the communities in which we were raised, or elsewhere. If we want to write, such material is a treasure trove. And it's our mandate, as writers, to reveal, reframe, offer a new perspective, encourage deep thinking, challenge convention and expectation, and enrich the written record.

 

Big Story # 2 today: If a small boy, merely five years old, wanders the mountains at the edge of the desert in Palestine and the desert is behind him, and he can see the olive grove in the distance, and his parents do not worry about him, but forever after in the dislocation of an occupied Palestine and exile in France, and then America, he dreams of mountains, that is the poignant beginning of a book. For many years I have encouraged Rashid to begin writing his big story. He comes from an oral storytelling tradition and it is wonderful to listen to him at the dinner table, or in front of  the wood burning stove on a winter's night, but I also want him to write his stories down, to enrich the written record.

 

Dear Reader,

 

Please do not keep your  big—or—small stories to yourself. Write them in your journal. Write to me. Caveat: Do not post all your stories on FB. Many writers, including yours truly, use FB as "practice." Indeed, captioning is a good discipline. But is it always wise? Be wary of giving away your work for free on the internet.

 

With all best wishes,

CB

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Brining

I noticed that the roads had been brined on my way to Kingston yesterday but hadn't read anything about snow. I had never heard of brining roads before, only turkeys, so was surprised when brining roads came up in conversation past the usual holiday celebrations. "Have you noticed the brining?" someone said to me one day. I didn't know how or what to answer as I am still learning mountain vocabulary. Then, it all clicked in:  those lovely even stripes on the road were brine: a mixture of salt and water. And they presaged snow and ice.

 

I rely on my weather app here in the mountains more than I ever did in the city and usually find it accurate. I check it first thing in the morning.  If the temp is in the 20s, I know our car will have a sheet of ice on it and has to be warmed up and scraped. When a new friend asked if we had a good scraper I didn't know what she was talking about. Until I had to use one. Luckily we had an old one on the floor in the back of the car. Emergency preparedness takes on new meaning here. And we have to be warmly dressed, nothing casual or matter-of-fact in the mountains. Layers, hats, gloves, new water-proof jackets with hoods, new boots, new hiking shoes.

 

Well, it hasn't been that cold yet and we've only had one storm so far. But it's only the first week in January. Like so much else in life, the weather, especially in this era of remarkable and visible climate change, remains unpredictable. And that keeps us alert to the environment in a more profound way, as I have written here often since we arrived in New Paltz last March.

 

New Yorkers are rarely homebound, snow days are few, snow events rare, subways running in most weathers, power outages occasional, vintage black and white photos of trolleys and blizzards charming. The city ticks over, it sucks energy, it buffers its citizens from the weather. But in the country, life slows and has to be managed differently. No oil-boiled constant hot running water or steam heat. Not only are we living in a colder weather system here, the narrative of our day-to-day lives has completely shifted. I find it both refreshing,  cozy and , literally, more sustainable. What else is there to do on a cold winter's night but read, write, play a game of Scrabble or binge on a Netflix series. The days, though shorter, feel longer no matter the season. I work out at a gym early in the morning and take a hiking break from the computer mid-afternoon to catch fresh air and light, or I swim in the morning at the university and then hike in the afternoon. I watch a flock of geese land in the corn field, I study a bear's scat on the trail, I take photos of a full moon in a star-lit sky, I eat a big meal at 4 in the afternoon and go to bed before 11 a.m. I write for two hours in my journal, double the time I spent in the city. I work on my novel into the night. I do not rush anywhere; I linger.

 

It's a trade-off. I miss the cultural richness of urban life, I miss my friends, I miss the pizazz of the city and am grateful when I can be there for work or pleasure, but I have finished two books since I moved and I'm about to start two more projects—one fiction and one nonfiction—before the teaching term begins on January 21. As ever, I look forward to meeting my new students, both urban @ NYU and rural @ SUNY Ulster.

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Snowstorm Scrabble

Note the "DELUXE" board and interesting words. I can't remember who won.

Happy New Year, dear readers. In the interest of optimism, good cheer and a blog post about something other than our troubled world—there I have said it, the world is troubled—I am writing to you today from a snow-dusted, peaceful landscape. I fancy a game of Scrabble on this quiet evening but my husband is in the city working. Alas, I could challenge him or a friend to a virtual game, but I prefer F2F kibitzing and a three-dimensional board. Before our move, I had been playing virtual Scrabble with a high school friend, two games at a time, and had tired of it. I've written here that I didn't like words thrown down without the ballast of a challenge, or the ready acceptance of acronyms and abbreviations, or the constant advertising. And "Words With Friends," which I have also tried, upsets me even more: it's a copyright rip-off. Hasbro and Mattel jointly own the rights to Scrabble. How did the "Words With Friends" app owners get away with this? No writer approves of copyright rip-off. I hereby object. Objection noted, you say? Thank you.

 

The Scrabble I grew up with was much tougher than the virtual game. The rules were strictly enforced by my refugee parents. Scrabble honed and expanded their word usage; the dictionary was open all the time, challenges were constant. My step-father had studied Latin and was a language maven. His shelves were  heavy with Shakespeare, Goethe, the Bible, Galsworthy and law books, all in English, his second beloved language.  He was not as avid a reader as my mother but he was a better, more thoughtful Scrabble player. He took his time, no timer allowed, whereas my mother played quickly and became impatient easily. I think of them often as I sit down to play, a "madeleine" of childhood memory. I was allowed to play with them as soon as I could read. I sat by my stepfather's side and made suggestions. We discussed them all, seriously. He was the parent who most nurtured me as a writer and always wanted to know what I was working on. How fortunate I was. I know that he would be pleased that I cherish these early memories and that I still play Scrabble today.

 

We had our first storm a while back and took out our new Deluxe Scrabble purchased while we were still in the city and rarely cracked. City life is so much busier and demanding. To have more time to read, write, think and play Scrabble is a gift. Yet encoding words in isolation is not necessarily easy for a writer as we are always searching for meaning in context, spinning sentences, connecting words. I am more like my mother when I play—a bit impatient—eager to get onto the next move, to talk, to tell stories. My husband is more like my stepfather,  slow and thoughtful. I can read a chapter of my book, or even two, before he puts down his tiles. He goes for the long words and the points whereas I never care about winning. What would I be winning exactly? Scrabble is not a competitive game for me. Only the words matter. They always do.

 

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Happy Holidays

Dove of Peace by Pablo Picasso, 1949

It pleases me to wish all of you Happy Holidays, not Happy Christmas or Merry Christmas, which I had to endure for the decade I lived in England. I never thought I minded it until I returned to the United States; I thought it was quaint. I especially enjoyed the tradition of hand-delivering holiday cards and being invited in for tea. I've been doing the same in my new neighborhood—hand-delivering cards with thanks for warm welcomes into the community—but , sadly, have not been invited in for tea. I will have to do the inviting, which is fine by me.

 

We may be a dysfunctional nation right now, questioning our values, The Constitution—what it says and doesn't say—but one thing I know for certain: we are diverse, most of us respect and appreciate different traditions, and this respect is written into law. " Happy Holidays," embraces all traditions; I'm grateful we have evolved out of a primarily Christian season. Or, perhaps I should not use the word "grateful." We've worked hard to become a more tolerant nation.

 

Years ago, when our daughter was young and we lit the Chanukah candles and then went out to buy a tree, and played Santa on Christmas morning, a neighbor (from Germany) met us in the elevator as we were struggling with the tree and said, "Isn't your family Jewish? Why would you buy a tree?" Though I would have preferred to explain that our family is secular and intermarried, and that we enjoy all traditions in a non-religious way, and that I, especially, love sacred music and will go to a church on Christmas Eve any time, I could not resist a dig: "How Christian are you? Go to church often?, " or words to that effect. It was mean and un-necessary. This neighbor was a nice guy, we'd talked often, we liked each other. But he was philo-Semitic: aware of a Jew when he was, he imagined, in the presence of a Jew. Had I ever told him I was Jewish? I had not. So I'd been profiled, which is dangerous, to say the least, and often wrong. To imagine someone is one thing or another is an act of the imagination; it distorts reality. I could be Spanish, or Palestinian, or Moroccan, or Greek—originally or ancestrally—or whatever.

 

That was then, a while ago, this is now. All sorts of malignant sensations have been unleashed, including vicious racism, private hatreds expressed brazenly in the public sphere. And it's happened to me again, this time in a doctor's office, not a slur, not a smear, just philo-Semitism. Much more benign but troubling nonetheless.

 

New doctor, time for an annual exam. I got an earful. He'd had his DNA tested and was disappointed and somewhat relieved to learn that he was not one of the "tribe."  "Which tribe?," I asked him sotto voce, as he was whispering this earth-shattering information to me in the examining room. "You know, the Jewish tribe." Again, I could not resist throwing stereotypes and expectations to the wind: "I don't know. I wouldn't know. Part of my family is from North Africa, part of it is Cree."


"CreeK?"

"No, Cree, from Saskatchewan. Native American, First American, as the Canadians call them, as they call us."

 

Was I being ornery or self-protective? Probably a little of both. The poor man looked stunned. Role reversal, I offered to take his blood pressure.  I certainly didn't want him to take mine.

 

 

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