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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Eight

The slave pit, known as the "African American Burial Ground," in New Paltz, NY, is marked only with a sign on the private property of the house next door. Epidemics of yellow fever, cholera and smallpox must have spread like wild fire in the below ground slave dwellings of the now historic stone houses.
                                     photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021


In a Slow Moving Year



We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.


-Marshall McLuhan



In other words, the medium becomes the message and/or the medium is the message. When I first read McLuhan in graduate school, I pondered this statement for a long time. In truth, I didn't get it. I do now, more so since we have become still more dependent on media technology in our pandemic world. We say we are grateful, we enthuse about platforms and apps, the collapse of time zones—the  collapse of time itself—in  a slow moving year. I have students this term across three time zones in the United States and another who just returned to New York from Bogota but had been zooming in from there. And that is grand, consoling, and stimulating, an unexpected benefit of Zoom. But as I walk along Huguenot St. wearing through a second pair of hiking shoes since the pandemic began, and I pass the pit where enslaved men, women and children are buried, or where they were thrown, if their cadavers were not taken for medical dissection, I visualize the killing fields at Auschwitz centuries later, another genocide, where so many in my family were executed, and it is as if no time has passed. I snap a photograph of the wintry expanse of lawn, breathe fresh mountain air, and write to a friend in Singapore, so far away, to tell him about the sensation of collapsed space and time. I wonder: when will I next see him in person? Will I ever? Will our lives continue in tandem—as I am so much older—or will our life spans diverge? Have they already? Is the answer in the questions? Do our time zones overlap or is time a mobius loop, Planet Earth floating unattended in space? Is email communication enough to satisfy a deep, long friendship? Can we continue to sustain friendship through media alone? Are social media platforms portals or labyrinths in which we'll ultimately become lost to others and to ourselves?


If we consider all the media at our disposal to stay connected in a disconnected year, anything that amplifies the human voice is the warmest, McLuhan probably  would say: Facetime, Zoom, a writer's voice in an email or  book. And sound bite text is the coldest, without intonation, devoid of nuance even with the enhancement of emojis which are one-dimensional, barren of real feeling, shortcuts, the same for everyone. Yet, among the generations upcoming, long before COVID-19, text and emojis had become the conduit of incessant "conversation," beyond emergencies or simply confirming plans, and that has only intensified. Do texters realize they are not talking? Or do we insert the person's voice in our brain as we are reading? Can you hear my voice as you read my words here? Because I am talking to you, dear reader, and when I hear your voice, your voice warms me.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Seven


10,000 Calls




I have been calling to get an appointment anywhere, every morning, every afternoon, and often I've been online at night.


Fran Goldman, 90, a Seattle resident, as reported by the AP



Sound familiar? From what I can tell, Fran's story is everywoman's and everyman's story this week. She is internet savvy and lucked out: she got an appointment, but had to walk back and forth on her own in Seattle's unprecedented snowstorm. A personal friend of mine had ambulatory surgery in New York a few weeks ago, was released, and had to forge a snowstorm to get home on a bus, her neighbor/escort hanging on to her for dear life. In the midst of the pandemic, there were no provisions in the hospital, or the city, to make sure she got home safely. Nor were there beds available for her to stay the night. My husband and I got our second shots, but many "eligible" people I know have not been able to get their shots, or have traveled far to get their shots. And what about people who can't do that? Or can't navigate the internet?


Remember President Bush's "thousand points of light," i.e. volunteerism. Well, there are volunteers now helping folks get appointments. Nice, but not an answer. What we need is an emergency preparedness infrastructure. What we need is federally and state employed logisticians. But this is the USA. Good luck. Even the United Nations, crippled as it is by member states' hubris and intransigence, even they do better in countries far far away that sometimes do not even have running water. Vaccination programs succeed.


Do you think the United States will be prepared for the next pandemic or climate change catastrophic event? Or are we, individualistic Americans, Texans every one, content with handing over our fates—physical, mental, spiritual—to our paralyzed governments and private grid owners? And why isn't the army or National Guard administering vaccine so that citizens and health care providers do not have to scramble for supplies? And why did Walgreen's and CVS, private for-profit companies, get the gig, their websites crashing every day?


These  are rhetorical questions. Next up, I will channel the artist Jenny Holzer and write in big print on a brick wall: ARE YOU A SOCIALIST?  Heaven forfend. A centralized, organized system that works, won't it implode our liberties? Is this even a question from anyone with half an education?


Forgive my sarcasm this morning, dear reader, but I had a My Chart conversation with my doctor yesterday in which her over-burdened-self  revealed that when the clinic announced they had a new supply of vaccines, they got 10,000 calls. I had been trying to reach the nurse in the practice for two days as I had an adverse reaction to the second Moderna shot, wanted to report it, and ask a question or two. No such luck. My doctor felt so bad, she apologized. What a ridiculous situation. Because of the collapse—or  nonexistence—of  infrastructure, she could not attend to her patients. In the end, I called a doctor friend in San Francisco. He held my hand long distance and told me to report the adverse reaction to the CDC, which I have done, thus contributing to continuing data collection. They have a user-friendly website for anyone interested:




And PS nothing, absolutely nothing, would have stopped me from getting a shot, even knowing in advance that I'd have a reaction. Please get yours as soon as you are eligible and it is available. Please don't knowingly jump the queue in the chaotic scramble everyone is experiencing. And if you are questioning the wisdom of getting the shot at all, please read this:



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Six

   Beyond  Pronouns


Jake Sully: I see you.

Neytiri: I see you.


-from  "Avatar," screenplay by James Cameron based on "Burning Chrome," a short story by William Gibson


For the first time since NYU's founding in 1831, students can add their personally selected pronouns, as well as the pronunciation of their names, to the faculty roster. This decision did not surprise; it's been evolving for a long time. To ignore its opportunities and imperatives would be #cisprivilege.  And what is cis? And what is #cisprivilege? I had vaguely, imperfectly understood, then I understood. I have always read Masha Gessen in The New Yorker and find her an outstanding clear-thinking source for all things Russian and trans. Forgive me, dear reader, if I slip now and again. I try to keep up. These changes in our culture and in our language are happening fast.


Like so much else, I suspect that NYU's decision was hastened by this past COVID year of invisibility, or partial visibility. We are blended in and out of the classroom, or framed by wee boxes on virtual platforms: I see you, I see myself in the camera's eye. Where are you? Where am I?  The images of ourselves and others are often elusive, so why not ground them, explore them, and redefine them with precise language as we await the day we will become three-dimensional to one another again. At which point, what will the world look like and sound like? How will we have changed? 


Just out of college, the cis daughter of a friend ran a support group for trans teens in a Mt. Sinai clinic in Spanish Harlem. She wasn't qualified,  she wasn't trans, but she was an empathetic facilitator. Working with the guidance of a social worker, she never flinched, never questioned the rights and desires of her struggling and suffering younger charges to find peace and acceptance, to get jobs, to protect themselves from abuse and worse. When she asked me to teach a writing workshop, I felt both curious and repulsed. Who were these young people? How did they get this way? What went wrong? Can they be fixed? As an educator, a parent, an espoused progressive, I knew better, but these inane and ignorant thoughts crossed my mind—shame on me. Years later, I have fewer questions, and more understanding, but as a writer and editor I still have a problem with plural pronouns becoming singular (he/she/him/her/his shifting to their/them) even though the psychodynamic imperative is now obvious to me.


Shifts in language follow changes in society. We now capitalize the word Black, for example, with reference to a Black person. Just recently, newspapers and magazines of record had discussions about this change as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter Movement; the decision was made decisively and quickly.


During a Zoom session last week, two students corrected my mispronunciation of their names. I didn't mind because it took courage to challenge a professor on the first day of class, and building courage to tell a story is key to my pedagogy. I was also pleased that they felt safe enough and self-confident enough to voice their names out loud for all of us to hear, learn, and appreciate. 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Fifty-Five

 The World Out There



I had a little bird/Its name was Enza/I opened the window/And in-flew-enza


-a 1918 children's rhyme


There's a big wide world out there, in case we've forgotten, I said to my husband the other day. He was gazing longingly through the slats of the blinds into the setting sun after we returned from a curbside pick-up at our local grocery store. It was too cold to stay out, even to walk. Our new apartment is bright, facing west and south, lots of windows. But the landscape is still out there, and we're here, hunkered down again as the numbers started rising in our county and the variants appeared in afflicted COVID-19 patients. The vaccine roll out is slow everywhere. We lucked out and got appointments—our second shot is next week—but we felt awful when we learned our local friends were not as fortunate. I had hoped to celebrate my March birthday with them in situ at Main Course, our favorite local restaurant, where exactly one year ago, almost to the day, we had our last indoor social gathering. So much for that idea. Even after we are fully vaccinated, the scientists tell us, we must remain cautious—distancing, masking, indoor gatherings still discouraged. No hugs for a while either. Oh, I cannot wait to relinquish the by now perfected virtual hug. It will take some adjustment I am sure. Will we be fearful, I wonder? Can we imagine the whole world out there hugging and hugging and hugging?


So, what's the upshot this week as I write? We are still distanced/isolated physically, but not bereft I'd have to say, after doing an informal unscientific survey, fortunate to have one another most of all, and to be deepening our relationships near and far with phone calls and zooms. Personally, I'm grateful that we moved closer to our daughter a couple of years before the pandemic and that we've had walks and talks on a regular basis. Had we not, oh, well I don't want to think about that; I commiserate with all the separated families. What must it have been like in 1918 without technology? How hard that must have been. So much heartbreak in the midst of coping and surviving, even with modern technology.


As for teaching, I have been impressed by the efforts all my students have made to stay connected with me and one another, mostly through their writing, but also on social media, email and phone. My NYU classes have been full with waiting lists, students from Canada and Portland, even Colombia this term. Intimate distance learning, if that is not an oxymoron, in proximity on the screen, backgrounds staged like a mirage: paintings, interesting book cases, plants, ceilings occasionally. The shop steward of the NYU union told me this week that meetings will continue on Zoom because people show up. How interesting that is: People show up.


I think we have to commend ourselves for showing up during the pandemic. We get online, we participate, we listen to lectures, go to museums, volunteer, continue working, continue loving, love even more. Most recently, I've been enjoying "Cocktails With the Curator" at The Frick, one painting every Friday, the perfect day for me as I always treated myself to a Friday museum foray when I lived in the city. Now I get to listen to an erudite curator talk, up close and personal. I hope digital cultural offerings continue after the pandemic is over and, if so, that I continue to take advantage of them. They are not a substitute for being in front of a work of art, or at a live concert, but they do amplify curiosity and knowledge.


The world out there, globalization beyond economic globalization, shared culture, shared concern, the world inside our homes, the worlds within us, history witnessed and written as we live and breathe.

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