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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Eight

The Take-Down; Margaret Sanger, My Mother & Me



I plan to be a mother some day. 'Til then I'm using the Pill.

Planned Parenthood Poster


The removal of Margaret Sanger's name from our building is both a necessary and overdue step to reckon with our legacy and acknowledge Planned Parenthood's contributions to historical reproductive harm within communities of color.

                   -Karen Seltzer, CEO Planned Parenthood, New York City



My mother worked pro bono at least one day a week at the Margaret Sanger clinic in Manhattan in the 1950's and 1960's. She was an obstetrician-gynecologist responsible for exams, pap smears, birth control information, fitting diaphragms and, eventually, artificial inseminations for women unable to become pregnant. The clinic served all women—it was a clinic--and women of all colors, ethnicities, immigrant status, and economic status waited their turn to be seen by the medical staff. I went there as a college student, age 17, for my first diaphragm. I didn't need anyone's permission; I went on my own on a day my mother was not there. My memory is that the clinic had a sliding scale and that I paid $10. I sat in the waiting room feeling proud and free. Then I told my mother I'd been for my first gynecological check-up and she was proud of me.

Margaret Sanger—born in 1897—was already living in Tucson when my mother began to work at the flagship clinic, but occasionally came to visit, introduced herself to the staff, attended a meeting, and disappeared. She was a heroine to my emancipated, European doctor mother whose uncle Arnold, a socialist in the tradition of European Democratic Socialism, was a doctor for the trolley union in Vienna. Sanger was also a socialist. She believed, as did my mother, that clinics serving women of all backgrounds are mandated to deliver medical care fairly and indiscriminately. The concept of "concierge" medicine would have horrified my mother, though a privileged upper-middle class lifestyle supported by a private practice, did not horrify her. No person is all one thing. Nor was Margaret Sanger. Layered through her courageous feminist activism are ideas about selective breeding; she was a eugenicist. We cannot revise or erase the words she wrote or spoke over many years. Nor is it enough to say that these ideas were common at the time they were expressed; or that they were heedless. Racist ideas are dangerous. They incite violence; they legitimate genocide. I do not know if my mother or the other workers in the clinic were aware of Sanger's eugenicist ideas or discussed them. As a refugee from genocide, and a trained physician, I doubt my mother would have entertained them in any way, or given them scientific credence.

The decision to change the name of the Manhattan clinic, and to remove a Margaret Sanger street name, arrives amid an unrelenting right-wing campaign against a woman's right to choose and the essential medical services offered by Planned Parenthood. I understand its' necessity at this profound moment of correction in American historical narratives, but removing monuments is always fraught, and this one feels personal to me.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Seven



Dreamy Sex in a Plague Year



The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it."


-Hilary Mantel, "Bring Up The Bodies"






 -Jenny Holzer,  "The New Disease Came"



I dreamt I was meeting a Cuomo for a tryst in a New York City hotel, re-opened for government officials. But there was a problem: I couldn't remember which Cuomo. Was it Mario—no he's dead—or Chris or Andrew? Either one of those Cuomo boys would be okay by me. The dream ended before the tryst began, however, and when I told my husband of many years about it, he broke into hysterics and said, "New York Loving. That PR slogan sank in." Then he passed the anecdote along to his table tennis group on a group message, and they added to the riff with sexy dreams they were willing to share, or made up, and we continued laughing for a good long time, the blood oxygenated, our spirits raised.


Boy, do we need this! Not to mention the satisfaction of baking a good loaf of bread. I admire all the Facebook portraits of loaves. Bread, the staff of life. I don't bake and I hardly cook, recipes are lost on me, I live on salads and scrambled eggs, some tofu, and once-a-week, for the omegas, a can of sardines. So, I couldn't get over-excited when my husband announced he was going to buy a Ninja—an indoor barbecue-- which, by the way, he reassured me, also can grill vegetables. Okay, I'd seen the ad on TV. On the first day he used it he air-fried French fries with parmesan cheese and parsley—that is a recipe, now you have it—and they were completely delicious. Not only dreamy dreams, but dreamy food.


We are confused creatures, and we become even more confused when we are under siege. And we are under siege. Indoor barbecues? Really? A friend sent a video of two guys walking the boardwalk in a Southern California town. One of the young, buff guys was carrying a sign, "Free Masks," and the other had a box loaded with free masks. They were dudes, they were friendly, but it made no difference. Not only was their offer declined, it stirred hatred, abuse, and physical threats. I sent it round. "This explains a lot," I wrote, "and it is also horrifying."  An English psychologist friend replied, "What is wrong with your educational system?"


Good question. Now for a test. What's your answer, dear reader?


Finally, the lesson of the dreams and fantasies with which I began this blog post have come to rest in a different kind of desire: an end to vigilance and restraint, a continuing appetite for life, a good meal with friends sitting shoulder to shoulder, a long embrace with loved ones on faraway continents, and a smart, empathetic president.  

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Six



Mon Ami M. Crapaud (My Friend M. Toad)


I am happy. I am very happy. This morning when I woke up I felt good because the sun was shining. I felt good because I was a frog. And I felt good because I have you as a friend. Arnold Lobel, "Days with Frog and Toad"

Le crapaud, my personal French word of the day. It seems fitting, thank you, French word of the day peeps, not just because of the prefix—crap—but because the image of le crapaud, gnarled and bloated and swampy, its neck heaving with intakes and out blasts of breath is apt. But I mis-speak. According to Arnold Lobel toads are very caring friends and neighbors. Even more importantly, they choose to wear masks during the pandemic even though they don't need to wear masks; they are immune to the disease of a devolving human civilization. They will just continue their evolutionary way, with or without us—humans.

Unless we have booked a vaca somewhere much further north in a land far, far away beyond the still-closed Canadian border, we continue to live a swampy and congealed life. But please, note—flights are cheap. We can get away. Or we can travel in our cars and RVs and cross into New York State, from Florida, par example, and bring the virus with us. Why not? What's a $2K fine if we are turned in for not filling in the form, or lying on the form we are asked to fill in--VIVA the HONOR SYSTEM! Keep in mind also, dear traveler, contact tracers will find you if you get sick and make others sick.

Plus ça change, M. Toad. Are you available for a brief interview? Ah, good, I will record your answers.

Moi: Let's begin with Viva L'America! Viva! Well done, America! Are you in a bubble with some toadlets, M. Toad? So far as I know, my readers are no longer toadlets. Toadlets are bouncing on their trampolines and driving their parents nuts. Toadlets miss their friends but they adapt quickly to new circumstances. I do not have any toadlets in my immediate circle, but I do watch a few from afar and I am convinced that the pandemic will recede into their personal history, and return as history in memoir, fiction, and poetry. This I say as a writer. Croyez-moi.

So, why toads today? In my toad-like stupor this morning I realized that we have a plumbing issue and will need a worker in the apartment to fix it. It goes to show, M. Toad, we cannot prepare for all eventualities. Do you have any wisdom for me? A list of revised, scientific protocols, per chance? And, most importantly, when will these diversions end, M. Toad? Because I need a nap every single day.

M. Toad: A toad-like stupor? Oh, Heavens, NO, NO, NO, Madame, mon cher ami. I am a perspicacious toad. Here is my prediction: The diversion will end next January in the Human Year 2021, upon which day the red-faced mutation in the WH will be pushed into the self-made swampy weeds surrounding said WH and suffocate. We will be under new management. The continent of America will once again be one entity, a nation under, protected within, if you get my drift. Universal protocols will be applied and enforced. All will be well.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Five

Photo: © copyright Carol Bergman 2020  


Restorative Justice in One Small Town



You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable…The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chYapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. 


                      -Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me"



You who harmed a simple man, do not feel secure, for a poet remembers.


-Czeslaw Milosz


We had been in Vienna for several days—my mother, my daughter and I—when we finally found the Monument Against War and Fascism, unveiled by the Austrian government on November 24, 1988. Its German title is somewhat different: Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus. Mahnmal means warning or reminder. Its central image is of an old Jew crouching down on his hands and knees scrubbing stones, a memory my mother held in her sympathetic nervous system every day of her survivor's life. Her mother, my grandmother, Nanette, had been forced onto her hands and knees on her way home from work just days after the German invasion. She had survived that ordeal, only to be murdered in Auschwitz together with most of our family. That death camp is the only monument that means anything to me, but I was curious how the Austrians, who had come late to redress, conceptualized a monument against Faschismus and murder.

A sign, hidden behind some bushes too far away from the sculpture for most people to notice reads, in German: The first to fall victim to the Nazi regime were political opponents and Jews. After 12 March 1938, many Jews were forced out of their homes and into the streets to clean away political slogans. The figure of the kneeling Jew is to remind us of these acts of humiliation.


This "act of humiliation," a euphemism, was the first overt violent action by the Nazis in the reign of terror; it escalated quickly to genocide.

Signage is important, and I wondered why this one had not been updated to reflect changes in Austria's moral compass as a member of a socially conscious EU. Perhaps the insular Austrian bureaucrats still imagine that they were victims rather than willing perpetrators.

The front of the square is bordered by the "Gates of Violence," carved from the granite that thousands of prisoners carried over the "stairs of death" at the Mauthausen death camp. And there are other stones here, too, smaller stones visitors have placed on the old Jew's back, an iconic stereotype embedded in European history.

It was summer and there were travelers from all over the world gathering around the monument, but no Austrians. We were outliers, visitors from another dimension. I'd read somewhere that late at night punks and runaways sit on the old Jew's back. I didn't dare return to witness this desecration, but the next morning I called Dr. Bernhard Denscher, at the time Head of the Department of Cultural Affairs in Vienna. "In my opinion this work of art should be more than just a tourist sight," he told me in perfect English. "It should provide food for thought and incite the beholder to pause and linger." My thought exactly.

This story came back to me this morning as I took my walk along Huguenot St. in New Paltz, NY: the sign at the African American burial ground has been repainted. It is now brighter and more noticeable. It sits in front of a "monument" of stone, a bench with a thick iron chain at its base. The bench has been there a while, now the sign stands in high relief, the story of enslavement by the Huguenot, English and Dutch settlers in New Paltz crushed into a small space, there for all to read and ponder, and for the descendants of slaves to visit as a sacred space. My only quibble is that the word "founded" was not changed as the land we live on was inhabited by the Lenape Nation before the settlers arrived, and was stolen from them.

Still, it's an important renewal, one that reflects the national discourse about monuments, Black Lives Matter, and the cultural changes we are navigating amid the horrific pandemic. I wish all my fellow citizens—here in this small town, and throughout the United States—continuing fortitude and an open heart during the painful but essential reckoning with our past.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 24

Photo of "Still Life With Masks" ©copyright by Carol Bergman 2020


Still Life With Masks



What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…


-Henri Matisse, talking about his still lifes.



Through all these memorable events, normal life was what I was seeking to preserve for myself.


– Richard Ford, "Canada"




I had my first lap swim in my local public pool this week. Registration had taken place on a cool, rainy day. I was the second customer and there was no one behind me. I was on my own, sequestered inside my mask, imprisoned in my personal anxieties about exposure. Every day new challenges, I thought to myself. I already need a nap. I had my paperwork—application, check—and wondered why the process hadn't been computerized, why we couldn't register online, and why the teenagers behind the table were sitting shoulder to shoulder behind a long table. Is that what the "guidelines" say? Really? That proximity is okay so long as we wear masks.

And what about the lap lanes? I asked the man in charge, after he told me that the kids would be okay because he was following the guidelines. "Three lanes will be open all day, as before. Two to a lane," he said.

"Lap swimmers breathe hard, right?"

"You'll start at opposite walls."

"And meet in the middle? Really?"

Then I thanked him for working so hard to get the pool open for the July 4th weekend. I didn't mean a word of it; I was ingratiating myself.

When I got home, I said to my husband, "I can either let all of this go, and not swim in this very convenient pool all summer, or I can go crazy and make it better for me, and others. If I were a parent of one of those high school kids, I'd be upset."

He told me not to be a policewoman yet again, to relax, take a breath. He meant well, of course. I had already gone crazy earlier in the week about new tenants in our complex not wearing masks. I didn't report them to any enforcers, whoever they are, and I didn't scold them like a curmudgeon. No, I have a new shtick: I carry extra masks with me and say, "Do you need a mask? I have some spares in my bag."

Stay quiet or go crazy? The decision, dear reader, was a no-brainer for me. I called a woman I know on the Town Board who has kids and understood my alarm. "It just takes one and the whole place will get shut down. I'll get right over there," she said. I called the Ulster County Department of Health and miraculously got someone on the phone in charge of pool openings. I am a "citizen journalist," I explained.

"We are not allowed to be interviewed," she said.

"I will not quote you," I assured her.

We had a long chat about intelligent interpretation of guidelines. And she said she'd "take care of it." So now, heaven forfend, I am indirectly quoting, or barely quoting, the kind woman on the phone. She was responsive. I was grateful.

Then I watched Governor Cuomo's press conference, the first since he'd announced he was ending daily briefings. He is beside himself with worry because of the surge in other states, is vigilantly watching our numbers, and holding off on re-opening restaurants for inside dining. Thank you, Governor.

I have read somewhere, and have written in this blog, that activism is a civic responsibility, much like jury duty. Most importantly, it works. On the day I had my first swim, another table had been added to the registration area, and the high school kids were seated far apart, disinfectant sprays at every station. I breathed a sigh.

The swim itself was not without incident. Kids were running around unleashed and a couple of beauty queens were sunning themselves on the gradated steps I use to get into a lane. Though I had a lane to myself, the protocol remains two to a lane. Apparently, chlorine gets splashed everywhere and kills the deadly virus. At least that is what the experts are saying to us today. And, just for today, I choose to believe them.

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