instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Blog

Sundays in the Mountains; A Look Backwards & Forwards

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

Huguenot Street in New Paltz is a palimpsest, layers of history, some undisturbed, some excavated. It's my favorite walk in town, sheltered from the wind in winter, sun dappled but not fierce in the warm months. The Dutch Reformed Church anchors the street and it's bursting with parishoners on a Sunday. People pray here, people say, "Have a blessed day," when they open a door at a doctor's office, or the bank. They can also be stand-offish, guarded to the point of rudeness, suspicious, intimidated, afraid. This is the America I knew existed but never experienced first hand until I moved north of the city, beyond the suburbs, along the route of the mighty Hudson River. I'm still learning, I'm still reading, researching, and writing about what I discover here. Some days I am exhuasted by new insights, new projects, new people; on other days I am more relaxed than I ever was when I lived in the city. I had always thought, or assumed, that the competitive, ambitious, striving, assertive, materialistic pulse of the city was the only pulse that mattered. I was wrong.


I arrived here in the spring of 2018 in the midst of a "monuments" controversy on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Several dormitories were named after the slave-owning Huguenot families and the African American students wanted those names changed. Because it is a state university and the whole town is a monument to the Huguenot slave-owning families—whose descendants still live here—the university had to go through a laborious testimonial process; it took months. Any decision had to be approved by New York State, not the Huguenot descendants, and that was difficult for the families. Controversy writ large, bad feeling, hatred. The outcome, unlike the outcome in the Senate, was not pre-ordained, however. Indeed, the university fell on the right side of history; the names have been changed.


Because it touched on a subject that has always been one of my subjects—the way history is told, and for whom—I plowed right in. Within weeks I'd written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Needless to say, I expected to be praised for my two cents, invited to seminars, consulted on my very important opinion. Instead, I experienced a kind of shunning. The shunning intensified when I was interviewed by the local paper about my book, "Say Nothing." Alas, my picture appeared next to the profile and I became instantly recognizable in this very small town where people refer to me, when I'm introduced, as a "newbie." My still urban, sophisticated, well-traveled self, did not anticipate any of this. Blind to life outside the New York City bubble, where I still happily commute to teach, see friends, and imbibe culture, I was humbled.


I have heard some New Yorkers say that New Paltz is a "'hick" town with only a handful of decent restaurants. This condescension now riles me so I guess I have adapted, finally, to living here. Who are we to say that a town we know so little about is a "hick" town, that the highly educated, privileged prism through which we view America and its conundrums is the only prism with which to view our beleaguered, divided country, much less solve its problems.


I needn't tell you, dear reader, where my politics reside—born and raised in a European democratic socialist family—I am on the "left" in the American political spectrum. But I have studied the politics of my new gun-toting, hunting, under-educated, semi-literate environs, as well as it's more privileged residents, and concluded that 45 is right in one important respect: the hinterland is another land, another country, decimated by cutbacks in educational opportunities, unemployment, outsourcing, and the opioid crisis, which has hit New York State hard. Any answers forthcoming must be local, grassroots, federally and state funded, and unstinting. I cannot count the number of young people I've met here who have had to quit school to work, whose loans are off the charts, and who cannot find a well-paying unionized job with benefits once they graduate. Even a day trip to New York City seems like Neverland to them.


Those of us who are educated, established in our careers, the owners of property and bank accounts, those of us who are altruistic, those of us who care, must help as much as we can and remain active and consistently empathetic, without condescension. Beyond the 2020 election, that is the only way we will take back America.

2 Comments
Post a comment

Politicians; The Day I Met Bill Clinton

Once again, the Oval Office awaits an honest politician. I quote the New York Times: "Let the best woman win."

 

In celebration of the shenanigans in the Senate, this is a repost/ riff of a blog post called, "The Day I Met Bill Clinton." The image of Monica Lewinsky giving that two-term President of the United States a blow job in the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton standing by her man, and in a soon to be released documentary, that same Good Wife blasting Bernie Sanders as a "do-nothing Senator" who "nobody liked." Really? Spare us the destructive bitterness, Hillary. And I could go on. Instead, I offer you, dear reader, My Personal Clinton Story:


It was a hot day in mid-July 1992 and the Democrats had arrived in New York for their convention at Madison Square Garden. I had voted in the primary—yes, I am a Democrat—but not for William Jefferson Clinton. I'd read a lot about his tenure as Governor of Arkansas and when I'd learned that he had refused to stay the execution of a retarded man, that was enough for me. Clinton was also a union buster. I believe in unions—though belief is a scary word to use these days—and have belonged to two unions in recent years: the National Writers Union and ACT-UAW at NYU. At NYU, we have just negotiated our third, six-year contract. It's not perfect, but it's a contract that includes salary rises, improved working conditions, and benefits. Prior to unionizing, NYU, one of the richest universities in the country, was exploiting its labor—clerical, adjunct, and graduate students. It was the graduate students who unionized first; young people cannot tolerate injustice.


I wasn't thinking of any of this on the day I met Bill Clinton. News that he'd cheated on his accomplished and intelligent wife with impunity when he was Governor of Arkansas, that interested me. It stuck with me because of Hillary's reaction, or non-reaction. My intuition, long before Monica arrived in the Oval Office, was that these two political barracudas had struck a deal. Even then, that disgusted me. I voted for Jerry Brown.


It was 7:30 in the morning and already hot. I was trying to run my two laps around the reservoir without expiring. I stopped at the water fountains on the track near the Metropolitan Museum and took a long drink. And there was Bill Clinton at the fountain to my right. Flanked by two beefy security guards, he began running again and so did I. I suppose I was giving chase. Whoopee! I soon lost them as they sprinted ahead. So, great, I saw Bill Clinton on the track, I thought. In our celebrity driven culture that story alone would have some cachet at a dinner party. But there was more: When I stopped to stretch at the bars at the 90th street entrance to the track, he came up from behind—yes, dear reader, he lapped me—and we stretched together—me, Clinton and the two beefy guards. We stood up at about the same time and Clinton extended his sweaty hand.

 

"I'm Bill Clinton."


"Yes I know," I said.


Of course I had known this for the better part of fifteen minutes as I was giving chase around the track, but was loath to admit it.


The next ten minutes were quite an experience: No one else around and there I was being regaled by Bill Clinton. I could have been anyone. I could have been wallpaper. I stood and listened. I tried to open my mouth to say something intelligible. I wanted to ask about the retarded man who had been executed, for example. But I was stymied by the rehearsed, exaggerated stories about all he had done as Governor and would do once he became President of our United States. Were the stories fact, fiction or factoid? Was there any difference, even then, before Fox News and social media? I had no chance to even voice a doubt. To the very end of our brief encounter, I didn't have a chance to get a word in sideways. He didn't ask my name, whether I was a Democrat or not, or whether I had voted for him in the primary. He made good eye contact and was very handsome, however, that was obvious even to skeptical me. His sweaty handshake was not slippery, it was strong.


Eventually, we walked down the steps to the bridle path and, I was about to say goodbye, good luck, bon chance, and so on and so forth, when the paparazzi arrived, first in a helicopter, then in cars. They descended, deus ex machina, and surrounded Clinton and everyone in his wake. A few more joggers came along, some with babies in those over-sized special strollers, and they all hovered as the paparazzi snapped photos. A 50-something female jogger sidled up to Clinton and slipped him a piece of paper. I marveled at her foresight—to carry a paper and pen with her as she jogged. Perhaps she is a writer, I thought. I get my best ideas on the track or in the swimming pool. Yes, I must carry pen and paper with me from now on. Enough of bending down to the ash track and scrawling dirt letters on my arm.


Dear reader, this is not false news: Clinton took the piece of paper and slipped it into a pocket in his shorts. And though I witnessed this, I voted for him anyway. What choice did I have?



Be the first to comment

In Memoriam

Illustration: © copyright by Tobias Tak 2017 from his book, Canciones, published by Scratchbooks, Amsterdam. Tobias transformed twenty poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca into a series of richly detailed and inventive ink drawings.
 

When friends die, it is a great sorrow. It does not matter if their death was sudden or expected, a release from pain and torment, or a peaceful passing. They are gone and the emptiness we feel is deep and long. At funerals and memorials loved ones rise to speak and tell their stories, often stories we have never heard before. We embrace other friends and partners, family members we have never met or know very well. We are all weeping.


At the turn of the New Year, two friends of mine died. I met both of them late in our lives, admired them both, and felt an abiding affection for them both. They did not know each other. One lived in New York, the other in Amsterdam and London. They were multi-talented, in the flow of their creative lives, connected and compassionate, kind and well-mannered.


I met Constance George through her dear friend, Stephanie Stone, who had once baby-sat for my daughter. I reconnected with Stephanie when I moved to Washington Heights and she introduced me to Connie. When I decided to stage—rather than read—excerpts from my book, Nomads, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Connie offered to direct and act. Stephanie also performed what I had not realized were dramatic pieces. It was a thrill to work collaboratively with both of them over several weeks. Connie's enthusiasm and professionalism were inspiring. Most of her friends did not know she was sick. In fact, the last I'd heard she was planning to travel to Berlin and work in the theater there. In my imagination, she is there, singing and dancing, writing plays, making new friends, and cherishing them.


I met Tobias Tak through my friend, Norma Cohen. She wrote from London to say he was coming to New York to visit his artist-sister, Elise, who has lived in America for a while, and it would be wonderful if we could meet; she knew we would like each other. Tobi and Elise are Dutch, the children of Holocaust survivors, as am I, so we immediately had a point of reference for our childhood memories. Tobi was an esteemed tap dancer and dance teacher --Norma had taken lessons from him—but he also wrote and illustrated graphic novels and exhibited and published his work in Holland. I had an opportunity to critique one of these books, still in draft, and make a suggestion or two. Studying the relationship of images to words was new for me, and a welcome challenge. The story was complex and evocative. What a talent! But even more importantly were the kinetic conversations I always had with Tobi, whether on email, or the telephone. We never saw each other that much, but it didn't matter. Like so many solid friendships, we always picked up where we left off. I shall miss our discussions and his life-affirming spirit.


Dear Connie, Dear Tobi, rest in peace.

Be the first to comment

Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope

 

I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.


I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.


I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.


Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.


The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

Be the first to comment