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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Eighteen


I Only Have Eyes For You



In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  


                                  Martin Luther King Jr.



I'd been wanting to contact Keith Mikell for a long time. I am one of his 4,000+ friends on FB, we have one mutual friend, but I have been a devoted follower since he published his "I Miss Obama" image of a young girl, her mouth wide open, screaming. His paintings are color saturated, meticulously executed, whimsical and life-affirming, reminiscent of Romare Bearden, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. When he recently posted an image titled, "I Only Have Eyes For You," I knew I had to interview him. I needed a break from the pandemic and all the bad news every single day. Isn't art, all art—written, visual, dramatic, musical—an antidote to despair? The answer to this rhetorical question, dear reader, is yes.


So I sent Keith a message on FB. He replied right away and we talked for a good long time on Thursday, a mere three days after Floyd George was murdered in Minneapolis. Why is this relevant?  In a week of brutal violence, surrender of our resistance is dangerous, as life is now bifurcated into the living and the dead, the righteous and those who have fallen. And I mean this in the biblical sense. Indeed, a Catholic friend of mine has said that the current resident of the White House is not the devil, he's the anti-Christ. To continue the analogy, so is George Floyd's killer. And though revelations, accusations and rage abound, what is valuable should be clear, if only we could understand that history is written as we speak.


Therefore, today, let me celebrate the transcendent work of an African American artist and dedicate this blog post to all the black men who have been murdered by the police in recent years. If this had been Keith Mikell's fate, he would not be making his art today. He would have been lost to us.


South Central Los Angeles is not a privileged neighborhood, and Keith Mikell is not a child of privilege. His father died before he was a year old and his widowed mother never married again. She worked in the cafeteria of the local elementary school that Keith attended, and saved the first painting he did at the age of eleven—of Jimi Hendrix—in a plastic bag at the back of her closet. She was consistently proud of him as he drew at the kitchen table with his good friend and neighbor, Ron Lewis, who Keith credits for inspiring him to become an artist. "I sometimes stole her lipstick to get some color onto the page," Keith says. Art supplies have always been expensive. So what's a poor, artistic child to do?


His mother lived to see both boys become men, Ron a graphic designer, Keith a successful painter after graduating from the prestigious Otis Parsons School of Design. For a while he supported his art and his growing family with a job at UPS, but the last five years have been different; his art has sold.


I suppose an artist's personality isn't always evident from his work, I couldn't argue that. After all, Picasso was both a genius and a misogynist, cruel to the women who modelled for him. Yet, somehow, I knew from his work that Keith was going to be easy to talk to and  generous in his offer to agree to a conversation with a stranger, albeit a journalist.


Reflecting on his origins, he remembers that his mother would often doodle and that he has two successful animator cousins—so perhaps the gift is in the genes, but the discipline is an achievement, it's intentional, and an example for us all.


And though Keith is affected by the struggles of our time and all its suffering and challenges, he approaches his creative projects with a light-hearted spirit. "I try not to dwell too much," he says, "it's a pothole in my creative process." He collects images, he reads and reflects on the writing of Princeton professor Michael Eric Dyson, he listens to a lot of music, he sketches out rough ideas, he sustains his Romantic impulse. "I Only Have Eyes for You," is a gift to his then girlfriend, now wife, Rita, who was upset by Keith's "flirtations" with other women. In his effort to reassure her, he painted a love letter, and a masterpiece.






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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventeen

Photo of Willow swimming ©copyright by Chloe Annetts 2020



The Great Upheaval


You must understand that a lot of us who are much older and more experienced with illness than you are also shaken by it. To stand by as a doctor unable to stop the spread of this dreadful disease is painful for all of us.


-Philip Roth, Nemesis



The weather is warming this week, the week we understand that the COVID summer is just starting, that despite Phase 1 re-opening in New York State, the virus still lurks among us ready to effloresce into a second wave if we do not distance, and wear masks if we cannot distance, and remain vigilant. At least I am upstate, I tell myself, where it cools at night, and I don't have young children at home who have been homeschooled and now have to be told they cannot go to day  camp, or swim in the neighborhood pools, or hang out with their friends. Maybe the same upscale houses I pass on my walks will set up their above-ground pools and/or open their in-ground pools soon. Shall I ask if I can take a dip when they are having dinner, perhaps, or early one morning when the disgruntled children are still in their light cotton pajamas? Oh, I have missed swimming since the SUNY pool shut down in early March. But this woe is a small one compared to so many others right now—friends who have lost jobs, friends who live alone and are feeling the psychological impact of their isolation, friends who have lost loved ones.


As a child, I would never have been in the city in the summer. Like other privileged city children I would have been evacuated to the country, away from the polluted  air and the city pools. Or I would have been sent away to sleepover camp, or taken a trip abroad. I would never have been permitted to walk barefoot on steamy sidewalks, or experienced the gush of water from the hydrants, or been allowed to sleep on a fire escape. The building where I lived as a child did not have a fire escape. I never  smelled fetid garbage or noticed rats rummaging for food. These childhood images are not mine. They exist only in photographs I have studied, photographs of a New York I have never known. In addition to the heat and humidity, which began at the end of May and often continued into my return to the city in September, I was innocent of the street sounds cascading into open windows, or the threat of polio or encephalitis in the city's pools. My mother, who was a doctor, never spoke of these contagions, even though she commuted to the city to work from our country home, as did my step-father, while my sister and I went to day camp and were minded by a nanny.  Even after the polio vaccine was available, and I finally understood what polio was, and how my family had been spared, I never considered that my mother might have been exposed or endangered as she worked in the hospital clinic. Like the frontline workers today, I do not think she would have considered not working. She had always wanted to be a doctor. Her Uncle Arnold was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna, she loved him dearly, and he encouraged her aspiration, unusual for a woman at that time whose family was far from wealthy. Incarcerated at Terezin, my great-uncle Arnold was a "camp" doctor, and saved many lives until he himself was too weak to work and was sent to Auschwitz to be killed. This family lore came down to us from one of the survivors of Terezin, for which we are grateful.


I cannot locate my anxiety today though I know it resides somewhere in the current downfall of the American Dream, of hopes dashed, of savings evaporated, of a vaccine and treatment months away. And though I have never been blind to the class divide in New York, my native city, I can feel it sharply as the COVID summer begins. Whereas I once had confidence in the nation's competence and my own, I am no longer so confident. Indeed, I am disgusted by the selfish defiance of so many Americans as we "open," and the heartless abnegation of the executive branch of our federal government in the face of this pandemic.  


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixteen


How Do You Feel?



The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.


-Sigmund Freud



The Governor, aka Governor Cuomo, is talking about how he really feels, not just how he feels but how he really feels. In his sonorous voice with the still thick Queens accent, he's explaining that such honest conversation is essential for our mental health during the pandemic, and he's decided to demonstrate. It's a valiant effort: he's worried, anxious, thinking about the families who've lost loved ones, and his own mother. He's modelling emotional honesty to his flock, the citizens of New York State, the nation, and even as far away as India, a NYU colleague has told me. Just hours later, traveling home from his 75th consecutive press conference, a photo pops up on his Facebook feed: he's fast asleep, his daughter on his shoulder. This is how he really feels: tired, protective of his daughter, loving. He's refueling for the next challenge, he's getting back to work as he sleeps. New York Disciplined. New York Tough.

As early as March 25th, Cuomo set up a Mental Health Initiative. He asked psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers to volunteer. Within hours, thousands had done so. An electronic help center was set up, more and more professionals volunteered, topping 6,000. A free hotline was announced: 1-844-863-9314

I decided to try it. In fact, I've used it twice. At first, I told myself that I wa calling out of journalistic curiosity. Does the hotline work? How does it work? And I was curious: can the Governor deliver yet again? But that evasive veil didn't last long. Which is to say, I was curious, but I was also making the call because I needed an empathetic ear and some concrete advice.

I had just taken a long solo walk on my favorite street in New Paltz. Mask off, mask on as soon as I saw people walking towards me. I hated it. I'd been anxious, even agoraphobic, as I left the apartment. New tenants, unmasked, and an inconsiderate handyman who also works in a prison, a petri dish for the virus.

Writers, even nonfiction writers, have vivid imaginations. Our minds click ahead into what might happen, what could happen, what in the non-writer world would be called"catastrophizing," amidst a catastrophe, if that isn't an oxymoron, or I don't know what. All those unmasked neighbors and workers scared me. If we are now into an era of defiance, what is in store for us?

I walked fast and then ambled disconsolately back to the car. I put my walking sticks away, opened the back windows, and took a deep breath. The sweet smell of freshly mown grass filled the car. I was relieved but also miserable. The mask had made me feel—really feel—claustrophobic, isolated, and desperate to take flight like the soaring catbirds I'd identified as I walked past an efflorescing meadow. If only I could morph into a catbird, I thought.

A young woman answered the phone in five seconds. Five seconds, dear reader! How could a young woman help me? I said to myself, not trusting that the helpline had vetted the volunteers' credentials.

She waited for me to speak, said a few kind words, how hard a time it is for all of us, told me her first name--Jenny. "I'm working virtually at home also," she said. I felt easier as my anxiety came out in a rush. She asked all the right questions and gave me the concrete advice I needed that particular day in that particular moment. The call lasted all of five minutes. Short and focused as it was, I felt fortified to press on with my day. Jenny's voice—just her voice, not text, or email, or video chat—was enough to comfort me.

A few weeks later, I used the hotline again with a different young professional and had a similar positive experience. And I'll use it again if I am feeling out of balance, frightened, lonely inside my mask, or bewildered beyond what feels like normal, writerly bewilderment.

I haven't seen any stats on how many people are taking advantage of this unprecedented free service, but I am sure the numbers of call-ins are in the hundreds of thousands, at least I hope they are. There are many sub-cultures in America where asking for emotional help is considered weak, or shameful. But even these feelings are real and must be acknowledged and overcome, as needed. All of us have to stay physically and emotionally strong during this already long siege. There are more challenges ahead. It's not over.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifteen



Birthdays & Other Celebrations


There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.           


                             ― Albert Camus, The Plague


In every well-ordered society . . . the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand. 


     Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in a Supreme Court precdent-setting ruling, 1905


Everything is reduced to the essential act of witnessing, observing in detail, and writing. At least, for me. As I take my morning walk, I note the birdlife I am learning to name, and the bark on the trees I am learning to name. I have started a "study" book. My subjects, in no particular order, are: French, art and art history, birds and trees. And, finally, after many weeks, I am able to read fiction again. So that, in itself, is a celebration.

My birthday is March 10th. March 8th, the Sunday of that week, was our last social gathering before the "shelter in place" began. Blithely, we met some friends in our favorite local restaurant, I blew out a few symbolic candles on a delicious chocolate cake my husband had custom ordered, and we said our goodbyes, not realizing that we wouldn't be seeing each other in person for a while—or worse—a good long while. If we multiply this modest, individual story a thousand-fold, even a million-fold, we've got the physical distancing story on a global scale. It's immediate necessity made the pandemic palpable, and then ever present in our daily lives. As it still is.

But it's also children I'm thinking about as I write today, not only the more than one hundred children who are toxic shock sick, surprising every medical expert, but the healthy ones graduating from high school and about to start college. There are signs everywhere in town congratulating the New Paltz High School Seniors, Class of 2020. They will be having an unmasked virtual ceremony and silent hurrahs, mortar boards thrown in the air in the privacy of their homes, or on their front lawns and back decks. Maybe the local police and fire department will turn out with their sirens for a land-locked fly-by, and the hurrahs will reverberate all around the neighborhoods. Let us hope so; our young people deserve support and encouragement as never before.

What am I trying to say here? Just that a parent of a teen told me yesterday that after driving her 16-year-old to a ride-by birthday party, gifts thrown on the lawn, she felt sad. Another parent I spoke with doesn't want to accept such twisted configurations of life as a new normal, they are not normal at all, they feel both adaptive and maladaptive. Indeed, this mom says, we should prepare for recovery and safe re-opening by letting our minds and hearts drift to a virus-free life. Maybe if we will it, that future will happen before schools reopen in September, assuming they will reopen. Is this delusional or resilient? I am not sure, but I'm going to try it because, dear reader, I'm having nightmares about the premature "phased re-opening." Last night's dream was clear and informative: I was in a takeaway restaurant, no more curbside pick-up, and had forgotten to wear my mask, as had the woman taking my money. The dream resembled a stressful early morning foray to my local supermarket, my first in two months. I'd lost my shopper and had no choice. I could not believe the sloppy protocol and called the manager as soon as I got home. And though he took some responsibility for the behavior of an employee, he mostly blamed the customers for zig-zagging around and not paying attention. Maybe he is right, I cannot say. I just know that it was a...nightmare, and that I cannot do it again if I want to avoid exposure.

In every society since antiquity, a threat to a community's safety has required regulation and enforcement. Why are we so loathe to align ourselves with more pro-active western democracies—France, Britain, Germany, Canada—in the struggle against this lethal virus? What is wrong with us? Maintaining distance and wearing a mask is an individual civic responsibility, like jury duty, some have said. But compliance also requires mandates, even fines, as some citizens find restrictions loathsome, inconvenient and/or a challenge to American "freedom." This is wrong-headed thinking. We are not being forced to do anything at the point of a gun; we are a democracy, not an autocracy. Nonetheless, enforcement is a government responsibility during a national health emergency.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fourteen



Friendship in a Plague Year



"When there is no connection to others, there can be no voice."


--Masha Gessen "The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation During the Pandemic," in The New Yorker, May 5, 2020


"We live without feeling the country beneath our feet/

our words are inaudible from ten feet away."


              --Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet, 1933



I’ve been thinking a lot about my friends these days, past and present, new and old, near and far. I am stunned by the number of people who have touched in with me since global lockdown, and how many I have contacted—virtually,of course. When we begin to talk, we pick up as though no time has passed, and some of our conversations are long, intimate and revelatory. If the contact has been mostly professional thus far, it seems to morph into something deeper and this, in itself, has been both revelatory and satisfying. There has to be more than the pandemic that explains this, some cement that keeps us connected, however friable the consistency before the friendship lapsed and we reconnected, however superficial the connection before the pandemic.


The life-affirming premise of this blog post, therefore, is that friendship—attachment, connection—is one of the mortars that holds societies together, and that the collapse of friendship—either individual or between nations—is a challenging event, both personally and globally.


Sometimes a friendship falls away and there is no explanation. Perhaps we allow it to happen, or even will it to happen. We decide—unconsciously, consciously—that the friendship is not working, or has become disagreeable. We have grown apart or moved to another city and cannot abide using email or What’s App to sustain the relationship. As much as we thought we had in common at one time, we no longer have anything in common. One day we are friends, the next day acquaintances. We ask mutual friends and acquaintances how this once-upon- a time-friend is doing, whether they have heard from him or her. Mostly we feel disappointed and wonder if our former friend feels the same. Who will make the first move to reconcile or renew? And are there some friendships we must, of necessity, abandon or dissipate, like steam, into the past tense? And then the phone rings and it is this very fallen-away-friend calling to ask how we are doing and whether we are safe and well. And we are, surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, pleased to hear from them.


In the most dire macro-cosmic scenario, a breakdown in human relations leads to war and genocide. For two years I worked on “Another Day in Paradise,” an anthology of stories by international humanitarian workers; two-thirds of the stories were about war. In the midst of the project came the World Trade Center attacks, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, and the war on Iraq. After the publicity for the book was finished, I needed a breather. The world looked a sorry place to me and I was blue about it. Neighbors fighting neighbors, cousins eviscerating the lives of cousins. I stopped writing for a while and then retreated to the country and started on my first murder mystery. Meanwhile, my relief worker friends moved into new and even more dangerous assignments. When they are in the field, it is a given that they are incommunicado; I have learned to accept this. I always remind myself that they are optimistic and competent people; their antidote to despair is to work and to help people. Indeed, many are front line workers in this current pandemic, either here or abroad. Several are working in refugee camps where, dear reader, more than 33 million children are living hardscrabble lives. I envy relief workers’ skills and fortitude, and their evolved capacity for fast friendship in the midst of disasters.


I remember meeting Philip Gourevitch, the New Yorker writer, and later the editor of Paris Review, at a Starbuck’s a few months into my research for “Another Day in Paradise.” I’d read his book about the genocide in Rwanda. How had he recovered from working on that? Though I didn’t know him personally, I approached him—breaking my rule about privacy in public spaces—and told him about my project. He was very gracious and spoke to me for a while. Not having seen his byline recently, I wondered what he was working on. His answer was, “small stuff, something local.” In an oblique way, his reply said a lot about the recovery time necessary after immersing oneself as a journalist in a cataclysmic event, or living one as a citizen. The pandemic is big stuff for all of us, even more so for those who have been infected, or lost loved ones. I am confident that if we amplify our friendships, and reach out to those in need, we will #survivetogether.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirteen


Howie in Love




We must make decisions based on our best assumptions in an atmosphere of considerable uncertainty.

from a letter to the NYU community from Andrew Hamilton, President; Katherine Fleming, Provost; and Martin Dorph, Executive Vice President 4/20/2020


For this morning's expedition, a rainwalk on the SUNY campus. To whit, as I am reading "The Hidden Life of Trees," by a German forester with the medieval-sounding name of Peter Wohlleben, I began a more serious study of trees. Immediately, I note tree families, though these are not old forest trees; they have obviously been planted by an environmentally conscious landscape gardener.

Like humans, trees thrive in stands, or families. And as we are discussing physical distancing whilst we remain spiritually and emotionally connected, indeed we are discussing this daily, the stand of trees is an appropriate emblem of togetherness and mutual care.

A skinny skinny crane senses my approach and flies off. It has a huge wing span. Where is her mate? Where has she landed? Don't cranes fly around in pairs? Now there is thunder in the distance so I'd best get back to the car—weather can change abruptly here and there is a forecast of flash floods. But first, I snap some more pics. A rock has newly painted graffiti: Howie is in love. Goodness, how wonderful is that in the midst of so much uncertainty and anxiety. It is an apt reminder of life and love efflorescing.

Back home, it's time for more tea, emails, and the grade roster. This is a reality check: it's been a challenging term @ NYU. The last time we were in the classroom together was on March 4th. By the following week, we were working remotely. "It seems like a hundred years ago," one of my students said as we were saying our goodbyes, echoing how we were all feeling: sad, rueful, perplexed, worried. I had kept in touch with all of them between classes by phone and email, and watched sadly as several students drifted away, leaving apartments and jobs and the excitement and opportunity of city life behind to return to family in other towns, cities and rural villages. I hoped they wouldn't lose heart, I told them, and that I'd see them again F2F another term. "We'll begin again," I assured them. But no refund, as yet, is forthcoming from the university for the five or so weeks that were left in the term after the schools shut down and the shelter in place began; with the economy tanking, many will not be able to return to school or retake a course they'd already paid for. And the university's priorities also are complex. What would they do if everyone asked for a refund? What should they do? I know the answer to that rhetorical question, but it's personal, and only from my POV.

My students had not signed up for an online class, nor had I contracted for an online course, so we were all trying to adapt. Physical proximity, body language, non-verbal gesture are either absent or severely blunted in the Zoom gallery. I had resisted online teaching for many years for all these reasons. Now I had no choice, we had no choice, my students and I. I had to learn how to teach as a dis-embodied presence and to connect in new ways, quickly and without the requisite training. I can't say that after just a few weeks, I have succeeded. Is there something I'm missing? Probably. Best pay attention to the various webinars offered by the IT folks at NYU and get on with it, I say to myself, as we are still in the midst of what will surely be a long haul.

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