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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, and later knelt, during the anthem, before his team's 2016 preseason games. Since then "taking a knee" has become an emblem of resistance and protest for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and a controversial gesture of solidarity by police officers. This photo was taken by Roy Ramos, a reporter for WPLG in Coral Gables, FL.

 

 

A Police Officer Takes a Knee

 

 

Hateful to me as the gates of Hades is that man who hides one thing in his heart and speaks another.

 

― Homer, The Iliad

 

 

I was driving a back road in this season of falling leaves on the way to my dentist, the radio silenced, and no other cars in sight, when I remembered an undercover New York City Transit policeman, the boyfriend of an acquaintance, a caring individual. I wondered whether he'd retired, or was working the frontlines in the pandemic. I imagined him confronting protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations and suddenly "taking a knee" in the gesture of solidarity many police officers have made in recent months. He would have been capable of that brave gesture.

 

Memory spurts are unpredictable and unwieldy. What triggered this? I haven't been in touch with this guy for many years, but the image of the bulge in the small of his back as we walked the streets to a restaurant in our neighborhood one warm, spring Sunday afternoon has stayed with me. I had never noticed it before. As we stopped at a light, I couldn't resist asking if he was packing.  "Yes," he said sotto voce. Neither his girlfriend, nor my husband, had heard the question, and no one except for me seemed interested in his answer once we were seated at a table and I started my interrogation. That simple "yes" wasn't enough for me:

 

"Why carry when you are off duty?"  I asked.

 

"Because there are predators everywhere," he said.

 

 I looked around the restaurant.

 

"I don't see any," I said.

 

"That doesn't mean they are not there."

 

"Have you ever fired your weapon?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Did you feel remorse?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Have you had nightmares after discharging your gun?"

 

"Yes."

 

 

So maybe the trip to the dentist was the trigger. He's an excellent dentist, an artisanal dentist, and I am grateful to have found him. But his banter as he's working on my mouth is often politically far right of my center and all of it feels dissonant and unexpected. Of course, mouth open wide, there is no way I can respond, and I always want to respond. Did he say that the socialists will be looking for trouble as the election looms? Has he ever met any socialists he considers troublemakers? Have I? And so on.

 

Often, we meet people who confound us, whose background and working life is so different from our own that we struggle to find a place to meet, metaphorically speaking. And, so it was, with the transit cop. And, by the way, he referred to himself as a cop, so I will use that shortcut here even though I know that we were, at times, speaking a different language. "You see predators?" I asked him more than once that day. "I see ordinary people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. I see the bulge under your sweater in the small of your back. I worry a stray bullet may kill me or a bystander."

 

He was uncomfortable with my questions, and looked as if he was going to cry. He was afflicted, troubled. What he felt—in his heart—and what he had been taught to see and do were not in concert much of the time.

 

My recollections went into double loops as I was driving. I remembered an Iraq vet I had interviewed. He was from a modest background, and he'd been looking forward to completing his education after his commitment ended. But PTSD had wrecked his plans. He, too, was a sweet-natured guy who had been taught to kill, and he was tormented. The nightmares wouldn't stop.

 

The police officers in our towns and cities who have been issued military-grade weaponry and riot gear train to target "the enemy." They are no longer protectors, they are enforcers, soldiers. Police reform must start there, with the men and women in police departments across the country who have aspirations, religious principles, families, neighbors, pot-luck dinners, kids who go to school during the pandemic, elders who are isolated. They live among us. They are us. When they dare to take a knee at a protest, they become part of the community again, they become whole.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Nine

The first issue of the Wonder Woman series released on January 1, 1942. 

WOMEN

 

 

Wonder Woman left Paradise Island to fight fascism with feminism.

 

― Jill Lepore, "The Secret History of Wonder Woman"

 

 

 

I have followed Jill Lepore's career since she began writing for The New Yorker in 2005. I read her book, New York Burning, about a 1741 slave uprising in New York as I researched enslavement in New York City for a novella I was writing. I am now reading These Truths: A History of the United States published in 2018, written before Trump's regime was in place, but before the pandemic. Yesterday, I listened to Professor Lepore talk about the pandemic—and much else— in a City Arts Lecture podcast. It was delightful and informative. Did you know, dear reader, that she wrote an essay about breast feeding? (I missed that one but will look it up.) A professor of history at Harvard, she is a non-academic academic. She doesn't hold history at arms-length, or pontificate, or instruct; she is not ideological. She follows her curiosity into a subject and never loses her personal voice or point of view, and she is unapologetic about her point of view. "The work of the historian," she says in These Truths, "is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth." Engage her in informed conversation, but please don't interrupt her, slow her down, or try to assassinate her. She will not be silenced.

 

I minored in American History when I was in college, and except for Hannah Arendt, who was a political scientist, not a historian, rarely encountered a female academic of note—not in the classroom and not in books. Sadly, there are still more men than women on my history bookshelf though there are plenty of women biographers. And then there is Jill Lepore. Her preeminence is fitting as we are about to elect the first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris –say her name. The thrill of this historic occasion is amplified by the Senator's ancestry. Not only a woman, but a woman of color. I may not agree with all her policy positions—fracking, for example—but I'll swallow that for now as we celebrate this accomplished woman's ascendance.

 

Any beginning in a particular historical narrative, says Lepore, also has an end. It's important to remember that, not to lose hope. The story of Trump's mis-election and removal from office will be documented and analyzed until it becomes the past, and we move on.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

A Remarkable Person

 

 

Valerie Pepe has just published her second book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life Continues," a sequel to her first book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life."  I report this to you with admiration, even a bit of pride, as I've been Valerie's mentor and editor for a long time. She is one of the most disciplined writers and devoted students of writing I have ever had.

 

Unlike most of us struggling with the restrictions of COVID, Valerie has been navigating obstacles since she was able to walk on her own. Born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), a rare congenital birth defect, she ambulates on crutches. The built world is not made for individuals with disabilities, Valerie always reminds me as she describes falling or tripping or waiting endlessly for paratransit to pick her up in the bitter cold. It's not easy to get around? Dear reader, that is an understatement. There have been infrastructure improvements since the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, but not enough.

 

I cannot remember the year I first met Valerie, even though that meeting was memorable. She was at the bottom of the staircase in a non-accessible satellite NYU location and she was incensed. She had signed up for my writing creative nonfiction class and, no, she did not want to take a class in another building that was accessible and they—the security—had better accommodate her and get her upstairs to Carol Bergman's class. I was already at the top of the stairs, heard the exchange—I think everyone in the building heard the exchange—and I rushed back down to amplify her request. It was unnecessary. Two security guards and a student were already on the case.

 

For all these years, until I moved out of the city, Valerie and I exchanged manuscript by email and then met at the Hollywood Diner on 16th Street & Sixth Avenue for our F2F editorial sessions. We always sat in the same booth on the South Side. I would usually order tea, maybe some soup, and she would usually order eggs and fries. She'd had a long workday at the New York City Housing Authority, and she was starved. Not to mention the calories she'd used up getting on and off the bus and walking two blocks from the stop to the diner.

 

"How many bags are you carrying today, Valerie?" I'd ask before even saying hello. We'd laugh  about our mutual bag affliction, and then I'd unpack myself and my bags, we'd order, and get to work.

 

There should be a plaque for Valerie outside this diner. The owner and the staff know her well. She started going there on 9/11 when her colleagues walked with her up Sixth Avenue from the NYCHA building and collapsed into the booths. She's been coming back here ever since, writing in her journal for hours, working on her drafts, and meeting me.

 

When Valerie lost her beloved father in October 2019, and her Aunt Theresa to COVID ,  I wrote to say, "The new book will wait." But instead of waiting, Valerie became even more determined, and more purposeful; she folded these primal losses into the last chapters of the book. She was writing for her father, her aunt, her wonderful mother, her best friend, Eunjoo, her boyfriend, Fernando, and everyone born with AMC, she said. Nothing, not COVID, not death in the family, would stop her.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Seven

The kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa.  Photo courtesy: Craig Foster, The Seachange Project. 

     

 Embedded in Nature

 

 

The oldest, easiest to swallow idea was that the earth was man's personal property, a combination of garden, zoo, bank vault, and energy source, placed at our disposal to be consumed, ornamented, or pulled apart as we wished."

 

             Lewis Thomas, "The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher" 

 

 

As outdoor swimming is over for 2020, and indoor pools are closed for the duration, I have—virtually—immersed myself in a nutrient-rich kelp forest off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, and the faux floating G gravity of actors on wires –the wires digitally removed—inside a space module catapulting to Mars in the Netflix series, Away. But it is the kelp forest in the award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, that has imprinted on my dreams and daytime reveries.

 

The Atlantic off Capetown is known as the "Sea of Storms," so fierce is the ocean on the southwestern coast of the African continent, home to one of the biggest kelp forests on the planet. Craig Foster's family had a bungalow on that shore and his diver parents put him in the cold water when he was three-days-old. Amid a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, and a period of burnout and depression, he decided to return to the site of his childhood pleasure and curiosity to immerse in the healing primordial waters. He'd just been filming the indigenous trackers in the Kalahari Desert and was inspired by their gifts and reverent relationship to habitat. He began to explore the kelp forest with a similar reverence, tracking its abundant life underwater, at first without his camera, and then with his camera. Years passed and he was diving every day, without a wetsuit, without scuba gear, to become more amphibious, he explains in the narration. Each dive in the shallow water lasts about two minutes—and  in 2015, on one of these daily forays, he discovered an octopus. His evolving relationship with this intelligent short-lived, "liquid" animal became a collaborative film project—his son and wife, his friends, professionals—culminating in a Netflix release, and The Sea Change Project, an environmental conservation group.

 

I was so smitten with this film, and all who worked on it, that I messaged Pippa Ehrlich, one of the directors and cinematographers. I woke up to her replies the following morning. The production company has been inundated with requests since the film was launched, and yet she took the time to answer my questions, for which I was grateful.

 

"Like all ecosystems the kelp forest is facing a myriad of threats including plastic and chemical pollution," Pippa told me in our email exchange when I asked about environmental degradation of the forest. Darwin did not mention pollutants in his reports from the Galapagos in 1835, but he gave us fair, passionate warning:

 

Amidst the leaves of this [kelp] plant numerous species of fish live, which nowhere else could find food or shelter; with their destruction the many cormorants and other fishing birds, and otters, seals, and porpoises, would soon perish also

 

What did Darwin know, what did he see, that some still refuse to know, see and understand? Everything. It seems incredible, almost tragic, that his scientific prediction went unheeded. Yet, it has. I am consoled, at least, that The Sea Change Project  is looking after the kelp forest a continent away from where I live, and that Pippa, Craig, and the rest of the crew of My Octopus Teacher, have used their storytelling gifts to tell an enlightening, inspiring and entertaining personal story. Find more information  on the website: https://seachangeproject.com/

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Six

 
Image of Kaete Brttin Shaw's "Prayer Flags" @ the Unison Sculpture Garden, New Paltz, NY © copyright Carol Bergman 2020

 

Prayer Flags

 

 

Do something. Start with pleasure. Make a list of all the things that are pleasurable in your life and then make an art form out of one of them. And if you're courageous, make a list of all the things that are difficult in your life and make an art form out of one of them. 

 

 --Paulus Berensohn, a dancer who "pivoted" to pottery. He was Kaete Brittin Shaw's mentor at Swarthmore, founded by the Quakers.

 

Never forget that we are artists, every one of us, creating and sustaining a life out of this pandemic wilderness, our connection to others, the new challenges we face every day—joys, sorrows, ups and downs. We digest and enjoy one another's stories, in whatever medium they are rendered: culinary, sculptural, written, or photographic. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Water Dancer this week, a gift from my daughter, I am in another time and place, transported by Hiram, a first person intimate narrator. I've only known Coates as a polemicist and essayist, and now this novel, not quite arrived but of interest nonetheless. Perhaps his next book will be better. And I try to touch in with visual art and visual artists as often as I can, too, even if I can't get to museums and galleries these days. The "arts & culture" app on Google helps, so, too, the occasional interview with an artist when I have been inspired or consoled by the work. This week: the ceramicist and colorist, Kaete Brittin Shaw.


I had first met Kaete at the Unison Arts gallery in New Paltz where I have taught a couple of workshops, but it was an acquaintanceship in passing until this summer when a mutual friend suggested I contact her to ask if I could buddy up for a long distance swim at Lake Minnewaska at the non-life-guarded beach, exclusively for those who have passed a test. Much as I would normally--and in normal times-- resist an exclusive club, mea culpa, I joined this one. I was already on Kaete's mailing list and was paying attention to her work. Then about ten-days ago, exhausted from a hack on my dedicated Virus Without Borders blog book site-- the realization that we'd have to take it down, the sadness of that-- I went up to the Unison Arts sculpture garden for respite.


It was a beautiful, soft, mellow day. The light dappled through the trees onto a simple wooden stage that had recently been built for outdoor, distanced performances. Interesting installations all around, weather ready, solid yet ethereal. I turned to my right and there were Kaete's prayer flags strung between the trees. I hadn't expected to see them there catching the light. My agitated spirit stilled.


I am always interested in an artist's choice of medium, analogous to a writer's choice of genre. Kaete only works with porcelain. Why porcelain? "Because of its whiteness," she explained during a telephone interview. "I'm a colorist and other clays absorb the color too much." For the prayer flags, she's added a layered screen. I'm not sure what this is exactly and look forward to examining them more closely when I'm next in the sculpture garden, or visiting Kaete's studio. That day will be a celebration.


When I asked Kaete about the inspiration for the flags, I assumed she was Buddhist, or had a meditation practice of some sort, but her inspiration was unexpected: she was raised Quaker. I have attended Quaker meetings and know that the long silences, though strange at times, nurture self-reflection and the solitude of artistic endeavor, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, silence is good for artists and writers, whenever and however we can find it. It allows the work to surface. Oddly, we've had too much silence and isolation during the pandemic, the gesture of touching expunged, our voices muffled by masks. Life out of balance.


"I have stalled on a major work," Kaete told me. I could relate as my plan to begin a new book project this summer never happened. I don't think anyone I know anticipated the long haul, the months of struggle, containment, uncertainty and anxiety for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues. our families, the world, an election looming. Who will have a job at the end of all this? When will we be able to travel, or walk into the grocery store without masks?


What has raised your spirits during this difficult time? I asked Kaete. "Biking and swimming," she said without hesitation. "Just floating on the lake, looking at the clouds and the cliffs. That helps." I know the feeling. All troubles drift away.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Five

 
Image of 9/11, a day that disrupted and reconfigured the definition of America: "Devil's Inferno" © copyright Peggy Weis 

 

 

What is America to Me?

 

 


Amid expanding global conflicts, 79.5 million people are now displaced worldwide… UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

 

 

Have the people living here under untroubled circumstances and at so great a distance from the wars of others been afflicted with a poverty of experience, a sort of emotional anemia? 

 

Jenny Erpenbeck,  "Go Went Gone"

 

 

 

 


I met an acquaintance as I was walking in New Paltz this morning. Masks on, we stopped to talk, always a pleasure in these more isolated times. I'd heard from a mutual friend that she'd had a rough time, lost a good friend to COVID, and taken a fall some weeks ago, her knees and back slow to heal. Now she was out on the trail again, but her partner was feeling frustrated, she said, because they wouldn't be able to travel anytime soon and get away from what will surely be a harsh winter, especially if the virus spikes. I thought about the word frustration after we said goodbye, about the privilege it implies, and I tried to feel sympathetic, but couldn't. This is a family with money, a beautiful house, a pantry brimming with delectable food, access to the best medical care. How dare they complain, I thought to myself, when so many people are suffering here and all over the world? What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with us?


America. God Bless. When I received an offer of Austrian citizenship recently it suddenly dawned that I could go "home," that "home" was somewhere else, the country of my parents' birth, and childhood, and education. I fantasized the last quadrant of my life—if I am fortunate enough to have a quadrant—with an EU passport, universal health care, daily writing sessions at my favorite Viennese café, and nightly indulgence in the opera. My mother grew up standing room only; I'd treat myself to a loge seat.


I filled out the preliminary Austrian citizenship application. I sent it back and had a return email from the Austrian Consulate in New York. Oddly, I couldn't remember my father's birthday and had to look it up on the internet. I'd blanked. It was not surprising considering the fugue state I was in. What about my daughter? What about my husband? Was I planning to escape to Europe on my own? Never mind that I cannot speak German and have always refused to speak German even during and after I took a (free for me) German class at NYU. English is the lingua franca all over the world, I told myself, extending the fantasy to every detail of an imagined life in Vienna or, with an EU passport, Paris or Madrid.


I called my sensible cousin, Peggy, the creator of the American flag illustrating this blog post. But she was angry with me. I paraphrase and extrapolate: Have you forgotten what they did? Have you forgotten about the right wing surge in the EU right now? Have you forgotten what America meant to our parents? A bit late, nicht? Didn't the Germans offer repatriation to survivors and descendants a long time ago. And so on.


I woke up. And let the application slide.


I don't think I would have even been tempted if I wasn't feeling worried about the election, the crypto-fascist in the White House, and what will happen to all the people I know who have been laid off, and all the undocumented students I've had and what will happen to them, and how the migrant workers in the orchard will survive the winter, and whether or not those near and dear and near and far will survive the winter. COVID crazy. I laugh hysterically when I hear all the suggestions for grounding and breath counting and goodness knows what to manage our grief, our anxiety, our day-to- day coping, the necessity of continuing vigilance to stay safe. Always the words, "stay safe," at the end of every email, every conversation. Bizarre, indeed. But amidst all this bizarreness and uncertainty, I do know this: If artists and writers lose connection to pain as well as joy, we'd might as well quit working.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Four

Photo of Andrew Geher and Tiernan McCarthy-Kenney © copyright Jack Hyland 2020, with permission.

 

                         

What We Choose to See

 

 

I suppose the shock of recognition is one of the nastiest shocks of all.
                 

                         Donna Tartt, The Secret History

        

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, Grow."

                                       

The Talmud

 

 

Andrew Geher and friends are cleaning up a dead zone, as deep and dark as a pit, cavernous and hidden, behind the local MacDonald's on Main Street in the small town where I live, New Paltz, NY.   It's an unofficial dumping ground and, possibly, a homeless encampment. In the past that would have been hard to believe in this affluent town, less so now that the pandemic has decimated so many jobs.  Andrew was walking by the site with his friends, a walk he's made often, but this time he saw the mess. This shock of recognition—the realization that our landscapes as well as our bodies can be compromised, trashed, or destroyed—stayed with him.

 

"I'd had a quiet, introspective few weeks when classes were suspended in the spring," Andrew told me in a phone conversation. A performer specializing in musical theater, going silent could have been especially difficult, but Andrew relished it. Both his dad and his sister had come down with COVID-19 and had to be quarantined in their respective rooms, both were very ill, though not hospitalized. They recovered, but it wasn't an easy time.

 

Still in his junior year of high school, Andrew didn't have his driver's license yet so he made plans with friends to walk masked and distanced around town, a safe way to get out and hang out.  Teenagers talking and walking. And then, one day, they passed the site and Andrew decided he'd organize a clean-up and posted an invitation on the community Facebook page. In addition to a cohort of personal friends, about a dozen of the local citizenry showed up, young and old, including Andrew's dad who was hauling a couch up a steep embankment when I arrived on a warm day in August.

 

Life for all of us has changed beyond all our imaginings; we all have been afflicted and challenged in particular ways.  Andrew and his friends will be entering their senior year of high school on Zoom, so the initial clean-up and a spin-off project is a give-back to the community, a broader, ambitious activism, and a way to stay sane and connected during the still difficult months ahead.  

 

On his new website,  donthurthearth.com,  Andrew says that he hopes to inspire his generation to be part of the solution, not the problem.  He deserves encouragement, support and applause.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Three

With thanks to Hailey Mohland Kopf for permission to use this adorable photo of her son, Griffin, reading to his fur-bro, Cairo.

 

 

Slow Reading

 

It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

― George Orwell, 1984

 

 

I have two friends and a NY Times celebrity "friend" (Michelle Goldberg) who are all reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light. I treated myself to a hardback edition for my birthday at Inquiring Minds, an independent bookstore in town where I'd had my "Say Nothing" reading. I went there on the Monday of the very week in March—March 9th—we went into lockdown. By Wednesday I was teaching my NYU class remotely and awkwardly. I didn't start the book until many weeks later. There was too much to do, too much to think about; I couldn't settle to fiction. And Mantel's devices and language are difficult; she's an innovative writer. I manage about five pages a day at the end of the day, usually on the deck in the fading light. I take up my chair, some water, my phone and my exhaustion, not only from a day of work, but from all the bits and pieces of life's challenges we must sift and organize every day during this pandemic, intensified again since the SUNY students are back on campus and many are walking around unmasked. I watch the vultures, eagles and hawks hunt in the orchard, set the Pandora to medieval music, and begin to read the odd words and unfamiliar syntax at a painstaking pace, savoring every phrase and sentence. The book is over 700 pages. Yesterday I hit Page 413. The Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell has organized a marriage for his son, Gregory. The woman in question thought she was going to marry Thomas Cromwell himself, a wishful misunderstanding. Several pages ensue of embarrassment and Cromwellian charm and manipulation. It's riveting. And though I am sure that an actor reading this sequence would bring it to life in his or her own way, I relish the voices surfacing in my imagination without the mediation of a professional reader. The connection between an author's words on the page and another writer reading these words is instantaneous. It enables us to reflect on how a book is made, and what choices the writer has made to tell the story.


I am usually a fast reader—I can even speed read—but have not always been a fast reader, much less a reader. I don't think my parents ever had time or inclination to read to me when I was a child. I do remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries to my baby sister and enjoying that experience, but it wasn't really until my first boyfriend started throwing books at me during the summer before I started college that I took the purpose of reading seriously. His name was Steve, and if he's out there somewhere, I thank him, both for the love affair and for the books. The glove compartment of his rickety Renault was overflowing with paperbacks. The usual conversation between teens in love, whatever that might be, didn't interest him, and it didn't interest me. His parents were chicken farmers—educated, political chicken farmers. I didn't get them then; I do now. They were blacklisted and were hiding out in Tom's River, NJ. Alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, the books in the glove compartment had titles I'd never heard of before, such as The Ugly American, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. That book led me to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and beyond. That is what books do: they lead us from one subject to another, from one thinker to another. Knowledge accrues, curiosity is stimulated, our world widens.


Recently, a high school senior told me that he doesn't read very much, and he doesn't listen to audio books, either. Even some of my NYU students confess that they only read articles online; they rarely hold a book in their hands. I am troubled by the dearth of knowledge implied in this revelation, especially at a moment in our history when propaganda rather than fact and considered opinion floods our media. A functioning democracy requires an educated, deep-thinking population, as well as educators who demand commitment and rigor in the classroom, whether it is virtual or real.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two

 
Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young child in 1955. When he refused to patent his vaccine, he was dubbed "the people's scientist."

 

The Anti-Vaxxers

 

  

Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

 


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.


I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.

 

And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.


My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.

 

Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?
Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.


People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org (link is external)or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-One

In 2017, construction workers in Copenhagen found ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen--mosaics and menus--during the renovation of a restaurant on the same site. Roman oven-baked flat-bread was served with a variety of toppings.

 

 

Conversations About Pizza in a Plague Year

 

 

We're here because this moment demands an explanation.

 

Michael Barbaro, The NY Times Daily

 


It's not often I have an opportunity to converse about pizza while ordering a curbside pick-up from the pharmacy. I didn't tell the man who was gathering my order that I was eager to have a conversation even though I am on the phone a lot and have a shelter-in-place partner. I love to talk and to ask lots of questions. Connection is my occupation; I'm a curious journalist. The pandemic has slowed me down. I don't like it. No wonder I've become addicted to M&Ms. I always include two bags with my order, a staple since #covidcurbsidepickup began. I wanted to make sure the M&Ms were in the bag. Had I forgotten to mention them? "No, you didn't," he said. "They're right here." Of course, pharmacy guy also knows my name as I'm a regular and he has to take my credit card. And his name, well I know it, but won't mention it here, I'm too distracted. Please note, dear reader: there is nothing unusual about distraction during a pandemic.


The conversation about pizza began because I had a torn green bag--a giveaway from a local pizza parlor-- on the front seat, and long ago, in another life, I'd had a conversation with this selfsame man gathering my pharmacy order about pizza and how pizza always arrives in a cardboard box, which is environmentally correct. The "no plastic bag law" had gone into effect in our town before the pandemic, but it is now all but forgotten. Plastic bags everywhere. The proprietor of my favorite pizza parlor had bought a bunch of green canvas bags logo-ed in big white letters with his personal name, which is also the name of the pizza parlor: Rino's. Rino's is in the same mall as Ignite, the gym we can no longer enter. I know Rino—we both preferred the same bike at the gym when the word "gym" was still in our morning lexicon—and sometimes he was using it when I arrived for a work-out, and sometimes I was using it when he arrived. He made good pizza. I liked his pizza. And even though the new canvas bags were thin and ripped easily, I didn't complain.


The guy at the pharmacy had never agreed about the quality of Rino's pizza. He reiterated this critique during our #covidcurbsidepickup conversation, and I replied with compliments: "Rino has been doing a great job with deliveries during the pandemic, albeit he's using plastic bags." I said. But the pharmacy guy grew up in Brooklyn. "The only good pizza is made in Brooklyn," he said, yet again, not referring to the backslide into plastic bags.


"The crust is too thin," the pharmacy guy continued.


"Oh, you still only like thick crust?" I asked. "You haven't changed your mind?"


"Thin crust is okay when there is a lot of stuff on it," he reminded me.


"But what if you don't want a lot of stuff on it? Just cheese? Or just veggies?"


"Well, then, I guess a thin crust is okay."


"So, you agree with me after all?" I said.


"I don't eat veggie pizza," the guy said.


I was prolonging the conversation. I didn't want to get back to work or find out what volcano had erupted in the Senate that day. But the guy was eager to get on with his next order. I was taking too much of his time and it was all on the phone, whereas our previous conversation about pizza had taken place F2F. It's easy to linger F2F and delay a good-bye. Now there was a line of cars behind me at the curb waiting for their pick-ups, so I said, "Okay, I don't have anything else to say about pizza right now." Some conversations don't last long. A conversation about pizza during a pandemic is one of them.



 

 

 

 

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