“They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”
--Attributed to Natan Sharansky, a Soviet dissident
With thanks to Rebecca Solnit for the Sharansky quote in her article in The Guardian on 10/14/2018:
I don’t often begin my blog posts with an admonition or a polemic, but it’s mid-October, we’ve got a fascist regime in the White House, the mid-term elections are nearly here, and to say nothing is to be complicit. Dear reader, whether Democrat or Moderate Republican, get out there and canvas, get out there and vote. Our freedoms as citizens and writers have never been more at risk.
Even more importantly, perhaps, encourage the next generation not to despair, but to resist and remain active. I say this with a full and open heart because I am an educator, because I am a citizen, I have a responsibility to young people especially. A dear friend and former colleague, now teaching in Jakarta, who has a young daughter, sent me an email the other night full of apocalyptic thoughts. I could hardly sleep. Then the next morning, he sent me the Solnit article. Thank you, William!
He’s been watching the stateside struggle from afar, which makes it harder, of course. But what has happened here and abroad —the resurgence of the supra nationalists—is global and has global implications. We cannot rest.
This weekend I’ll be canvassing for Antonio Delgado who is running to unseat Congressman Faso in the 19th Congressional District where I now live. This is not easy and it is not even absolutely safe. We are an armed nation. But I will be with friends and we'll have a list of Independents to persuade to vote for Delgado.
He is Latino, a Harvard educated lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, tall, lean, smart and warm like President Obama. The racist venom against him that has been unleashed is unprecedented. Let us tame this monster and return to the evolution of a civilized democracy.
“They want us to believe there’s no chance of success. But whether or not there’s hope for change is not the question. If you want to be a free person, you don’t stand up for human rights because it will work, but because it is right. We must continue living as decent people.”
As the wolf attacks the sheep, so come we.
--Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, addressing a rally in April, 1928
Let me remind you of the old maxim: people under suspicion are better moving than at rest, since at rest they may be sitting in the balance without knowing it, being weighed together with their sins.
-- Franz Kafka
I had a nightmare that Judge K was elevated to the Supreme Court. He went for a fitting of his robe and they couldn’t find one large enough for his rage, his self-pity or his ego. His head and neck were swollen with German beer. His breath was putrid. His female law clerks, all carefully chosen by his stage managers, became his special darlings. Never, he promised them, would he put his hand over their mouths if they screamed, never would he silence them if they wished to speak. He was a modern married man, a father of two daughters, he reassured them.
Years ago, when I was in high school, my lawyer stepfather handed me a book about the history of the Supreme Court. As a refugee from a despotic regime, he was enamored of the court. I cannot remember who the Justices were at the time—certainly there were no women as President Reagan did not appoint Sandra Day O’Connor until 1981—but my stepfather was enamored nonetheless. He followed all the rulings, read them, and told me to read them. These dry briefs became the triggers for interesting discussions and for a short while I thought that I, too, might become a lawyer.
Most admirable were the surprise rulings, my stepfather said. He was left-leaning, had grown up during the progressive Weimar period, and defended communists at the beginning of the Nazi regime. Virulent anti-Semitic ideology pervaded the courts when he was a young lawyer. Judges who did not comply could be imprisoned or shot. But in America, there were no such executions, not literally anyway; judges and justices are permitted evolution and change. This is known as “ideological drift.” It usually takes place after the president who has appointed him or her is out of office. Indeed, several recent studies of the courts have confirmed that ideological drift is not an exception, it’s a rule. Interestingly, it can go both ways: liberal-conservative, conservative-liberal.
I suppose this is, possibly , too-hopeful news as I write this morning, a necessary story of cheer after an emotionally grueling week. The struggle to end the nightmare continues. We cannot rest. Read More
Once upon a time there was a writer in the family who used his backstory in the first five chapters of his novel, fictionalized, of course. He changed the names of his nearest and dearest—his familiars, people he loved, people he found troublesome—and amplified the characters beyond recognition. Or so he thought. He told his writers group, and then his agent, and then his publisher that the work took on a life of its own, that the story wrote itself, without reference to his own story or anyone he knew. By the time he was done, he said, he didn’t remember how the book had started or who had inspired it. Nonetheless, a brother recognized himself, then a cousin, then a former lover. A more distant relative threatened to sue. Luckily, the writer carried indemnification insurance. He had been warned by his agent: publishers no longer indemnify. So what had started as a writing project became a legal nightmare. Many writers have been through it; few can afford it. Including me.
I have had more than one such conundrum in my writing life. I’ve had a death threat and a request from an English Lord in the House of Lords—where I’d been called to testify because of an article I’d written—to return to the country from whence I came, post haste. My very own mother asked that I refrain from writing a memoir about her side of our family for fear of legal action, which never happened. The book was published, it did well, my mother was proud.
I am a reporter, Nancy Drew writ large. I gather evidence. The story is told from my point of view; I own it and take responsibility for it. I write fiction now, too, which is different in many ways, but the same ethical rules apply.
Recently, not that long ago, alas, I published an essay called “Why I Believe in Interventions.” Someone in my extended family took exception to it and threatened to sue unless I withdrew it from the online magazine, or changed a few of the sentences. I no longer carry indemnification insurance so I had to prevail upon a mediator—my skillful husband—to quiet this relative. It was an unpleasant episode that affected me and members of the family adversely. Afterwards, I asked myself questions: Should I have written and published this essay? YES. Did I have a right to publish it? YES. Should I have shown a draft to various family members mentioned in the piece, directly and obliquely? PERHAPS. Would that constitute censorship, or prior restraint? YES.
Every term I begin my workshop classes with a mantra: every writer must feel absolutely free. No self-editing, no censorship, no prior restraint, no coy references or hidden agendas. Remain credible, write honestly and fairly, do your research, raise your knowledge base, state your point of view, and the writing will soar.
I do not live in a police state, I am free, I am a writer. This is what writers do. Read More
I know a woman by the name of Faith who is cheerful and optimistic. She attributes her temperament to her faith and her voice; she sings in church every Sunday. We knew each other briefly, then fell out of touch. Did I have faith in the longevity of our friendship? I did, at first. Is this narrative true or false? How does she tell the story? What is her point of view of our fleeting friendship? Her perception? Probably quite different, undoubtedly so, I’d say. That is because there is no fixed rendering of any event or relationship or history; there is only uncertainty and flux and evolution and devolution, or all of the above, simultaneously. I know this absolutely. I’m an absolutist on the question of faith; I don’t have any. When I open the bible all I see is early 17th century poetic prose or poetry itself. It is not the Holy Bible to me, it’s just the King James Bible, a book. Stories, characters, setting, omniscient point of view. It’s the omniscience in some biblical tales that’s troubling for me. This book is the word of whom, exactly?
This was a question I asked twins Cassandra and Stephanie, both recent graduates of SUNY New Paltz. It was a warm day and I was about to walk on the rail trail. There they were, perched on a couple of stools, clothed top to bottom in long cotton dresses and collars tightly pinned, their long hair bunched and bunned at the neck. Though they looked Amish or Hasidic, their wobbly cardboard sign identified them as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The world is in a state of suffering, they told me, and only the Lord knows what to do about it. They offered pamphlets and a long, tiresome rap. But because they were young, I stayed to talk. I wanted to know if they had boyfriends, how they supported themselves and whether they voted, or not (they don’t), or how they made it through four years on a free-wheeling college campus. Just yesterday, I told them, a woman cyclist, naked from the waist up, circled around and past me. What did they think of that?, I asked. “Original sin,” one of the sisters whispered. “I couldn’t agree less,” I said.
They referred me to an official website. Did I know---seeing as I am apparently without religion, progressive, and believe that knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive—that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bear arms, that they are conscientious objectors? That they remained neutral during World War II? “Silence is complicity,” I said after a moment of silence for my murdered family.
And so our conversation continued in that spirit. Civil and respectful throughout, thankfully. I do think we were searching for common ground and were sad, in a way, not to have found it. I liked these two young women—they were still unformed from my professorial perspective—except for their intransigent beliefs. Those were fully formed, intractable, based on the words written in the Bible.
Then, just about a week later, I met two more Jehovah’s Witnesses on Main Street in front of Starbucks. Same signs, same literature—if one can call it that—same admonition to “wake up,” two different women one Asian-American, the other African-American. The sidewalk was narrow and they were blocking my path. From their point of view, the semiotics were obvious: if you block the path, the person has to stop and talk, right?
First things first, I asked if they’d like an ice cream (they didn’t) and then if they were students or recent graduates (they weren’t) and, finally, I informed them that by standing on this particular corner, they were integrating the town. It’s a very white town, did you know that?, I asked them. They didn’t and looked a bit alarmed. “I didn’t mean to alarm you,” I said. “It’s a safe town.” Then I interviewed them, so to speak, which they found amusing. But they were restless. I wasn’t their target audience, and when they finished with their complicated back stories, I said goodbye and went to get my ice cream. Read More
I had my last lap swim in my local outdoor pool yesterday. The Minnewaska State Park beaches are also shuttered, as is the Ulster County Pool. Why? Because all the lifeguards and swim instructors return to school this week. End of summer story. On Thursday, I’ll join an indoor pool at SUNY New Paltz and lap swim once or twice a week. It’s different than working out at the gym, more meditative, more supple, less coercive and competitive and goal-driven. Though there is an adult swimmer’s Masters Class at the university, I will not succumb to that temptation. I’ve had my day in the competitive sun and though, at times, I still enjoy chasing the much younger guy in the next lane, I can also let the swimming- to-win go.
My mother put me into the water the first summer of my life. Out of the womb, into the water. I’ve written a novella based on my imagining of this summer on a lake in upstate New York probably not far from where I am living now. My parents had split yet my mother looks happy in the photo I have of the two of us at the beach. We are both beaming with “we’ve just been swimming” smiles. This photo, my favorite of the two of us, inspired the “Water Baby” novella. I kept it on my desk as I was writing and it is now enlarged and framed.
My mother was born in Vienna where a sports culture pervaded everyday life for everyone, no matter class or caste. Outdoor activities—summer and winter—were the norm. Everyone could swim and ski and ice skate and play tennis and soccer, as could my sister and I as we were growing up. So it came as a surprise to me that there were people in other parts of the world who were not as privileged and had no idea how to swim, for example. Someone told me the other day that it is becoming harder every summer for pools and lakes to find lifeguards and swim instructors in America, of all places. I wonder if this is also true in Europe? That’s a question I hope one of my EU readers will be able to answer. Is it possible that young people are no longer interested in Red Cross certifications? I was thrilled by every card I earned—Beginning Swimmer to Advanced Swimmer—and was a wiz at CPR by the time I was 16. I couldn’t wait to boss kids around at the pool or lake while I was life guarding, or teaching them to swim during my summer holidays in high school and college. I had a whiff of this memory this summer when I volunteered to administer a swim test to wannabe Minnewaska long distance swimmers. Once again, I wielded a clipboard and the power to pass or fail a swimmer. Throwback summer.
How fortunate I am to still be able to swim and hike and remain healthy in mind and body. My mother died at 99 of old age, so I have good genes. I took her swimming every Saturday until she was about 95 and we—her caretaker and I—could no longer get her up or down the stairs. Her sight was so poor that she often crashed into the lane dividers. But she still swam like an angel and had yet more stories to tell over a well-earned lunch. If I could have taken her swimming while she was in hospice, I would have. Read More
We drove to Woodstock last week for a private screening of Cambiz –Amir Khosravi’s documentary film, “Inheritance.” The drive was long and winding, there was no GPS signal for a while, and I was irritable by the time we arrived. Friends and new friends, cheese, dips, wine, watermelon and a frisky dog, Cooper, awaited us. My mood lifted, more so as I began to understand that the film’s subject—the history of Iran and the role of Cambiz’s father in the autocratic Reza Shah’s regime—has analogies to my own back story. Snakes in the family. What to do about them? Create art, evidemment (French pronunciation, please.)
I, too, had a father I hardly knew whose questionable actions were eventually revealed by me and others. The decision to expose the truth was not hard ; my father had abandoned my mother when she became pregnant with me. But mine was not merely a revenge exploration, nor is Amir-Khosravi’s pilgrimage into Iran’s history and an estranged father he disliked. Much as we might resist, at first, these intimate and, sometimes, shameful stories, the process of shaping them artfully becomes discovery, expiation and, finally, an addendum to the historical record.
Though he was a Holocaust survivor, some of my father’s art collection—mostly Egon Schieles—was purchased from caches of Nazi looted art. For a while I could not believe that he had done this, but then it made perfect sense based on my experience of him as his daughter. Yet, when an art scholar recently asked me about my father’s motivations, I could only hypothesize: he imagined he was rescuing the looted art ; he was obsessed with Schiele’s skill as a draftsman and the pornographic, sadistic imagery; he persuaded himself that the provenance was legitimate; or, alternatively, he was totally ignorant of the art’s provenance; or, as the art accrued in value, he got greedy. And so on.
“Egon Schiele, My Father and Me,” was written after one of my father’s paintings was restituted to the rightful heirs. I was furious at my discoveries and wrote in a frenzy, then calmed down and told the story as accurately as I could. Both my article and Khosravi's film have a similar restraint and intensity.
Amri-Khosravi was living in Teheran with his aunt in 1953—just nine-years-old—when the CIA and British backed a bloody military coup that installed the Shah. Khosravi's father, Reza Gohli Amirkhosrovi, who had worked for the Shah's father as Minister of Finance, joined the inner circle of the new government. These facts, and many more, are undeniable. What Amri-Khosravi has made of them is art.
“Inheritance” will be screened at the San Francisco Film Festival on September 23rd:
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
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.”
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.”
“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
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:
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
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