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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Four

With thanks to © Ehimetalor Akhere Ejadamie Unuabona, a documentary photographer living in East London, for this image of the National Covid Memorial Wall. Lest we forget how many have died in this global pandemic.

 

 

"Civilization" and Our Discontents

 

Homo homini lupus est.

  

      A man is a wolf to another man.

 

-Latin Proverb

 

 

The doctor from Montana tried to persuade me that the gentle, non- judgmental approach was best with anti-vaxxers. It was a Sunday, she'd just been to church with her ailing mother, they were so relieved to be meeting in person again, and I was on my morning walk when we stopped to talk.  Best to say, calmly, "I'm worried about you," she explained.  So I decided to try this approach with a young man who works at the gym. He was  behind plastic, wearing a mask again, and so was I. I'd seen him walking around talking to people without his mask so I never for a minute thought he wasn't vaccinated, yet somehow suspected he wasn't based on previous conversations. So this morning, with news of break-through infections, and my own instinct to get masked-up again, I asked him directly. After the confession, came a litany of, "I spoke to my doctor and we think I don't need to get vaccinated," etc.  Excuse me? Who is this doctor?  But I didn't say that. I  held my breath and tried the recommended gentle approach: "You're a very smart man. That decision surprises me."

 

I didn't wait  to hear a reply. I saw his face, though, and hope my disappointment in him hit home. He'd asked me for some mentoring help, which I provided willingly. Now I'm done.

 

The refusal to get vaccinated—not  the hesitancy, but the blatant, outright refusal—feels  passive-aggressive to me, an "I'm going to show you" attitude, a "fuck you," attitude. I hope I am wrong about this because the psychological implications are dire. The rageful behavior of some of our citizens, many of whom are armed, worries me. Gentle admonitions won't help with these folks. It's time for mandates everywhere. This is a public health emergency.

 

I can't believe I'm writing this post, that I've returned to Virus Without Borders, but I know two people in England who've had Covid recently after getting their second shots. Not breakthrough infections, exactly, as the Brits did a twelve-week wait period before the second shot, so more than likely antibodies had weakened, but bad enough. Entire families had to go into quarantine, trips to see loved ones were cancelled—my son-in-law's parents, his sister and her family. And here in the US of  A,  people are traveling everywhere, gathering. Much too soon. The CDC are standing by their recommended protocols—no masks  for the vaccinated needed indoors—and  not tracking breakthrough infections. What is going on?

 

Dear Readers, the euphoria of early vaccination has worn off as I await announcement of a third shot, or a booster.

 

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War is Not Good for the Environment. Our Cultural Heritage, or Any Sentient Being

Armed conflict zones result in endless suffering of innocent civilians, permanent refugee camps , invalidism of injured combatants, destruction of cultural heritage sites and dismembered families and communities.  Photo © copyright Unicef 2021

 

By the time active military engagement ended, the United States dropped three times as many tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a country the size of Illinois, as were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War...Three million Americans served in Vietnam: 58,000 died there. The United States got nothing for it.   

 

-Louis Menad, "The Free World"

 

I was reading Menand's chapter on Vietnam in The Free World the very week that most of the American troops in Afghanistan came home. The bases that fed and employed the local populations, bases as large as cities, were abandoned in a middle-of-the-night clandestine operation to prevent Taliban attacks during retreat.

 

The United States got nothing for that 20-year war either. Osama was bivouacked in Pakistan so why, exactly, did we go in?

 

The women of Afghanistan benefited greatly from the American occupation, however. A short-lived gift. What will happen to them now?

 

I've known a few war reporters, and to a person they are addicted to the adrenalin rush of war. They then feel remorse, and often cannot wind down, sleep or eat for months, or years. Like soldiers and humanitarian relief workers, reporters often suffer from PTSD. They witness cruelty, barbarism, murder, famine, loss. Sometimes, like some humanitarian workers, soldiers and reporters disappear from civilian life entirely, re-enlist ad infinitum, volunteer to cover stories ad infinitum, and stay in the field for the rest of their lives following the footprints of war across the continents. There are plenty to keep them busy.

 

And then there are the soldiers who become humanitarian workers—swords into ploughshares. I am always honored to meet them. This week I received an email from Robert Macpherson's publicist asking if I'd blurb his debut book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis.  Macpherson is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marines with service in Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia. After retiring as a Colonel, he enjoyed a second career with the humanitarian aid agency, CARE. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Veronica and service dog, Blue.

 

A service dog. That says a lot, enough for me to consider saying yes to the publicist, that I'm happy to read the book and write a blurb. The only caveat is the prose: it has to be strong. I wasn't disappointed. Here's an excerpt, by permission:

 

Upon leaving the clinic, I thought about how sheltered I had been. Although I experienced war and conflict, I traveled within a bubble. If I were injured, the Marine Corps would find and rescue me. When I went to a rest area away from combat, there were cans of Coca-Cola and other staples of American life. Wherever we were assigned, we brought our culture, language, and as much of our lifestyle with us as logistically possible. In Somalia, though, I was pushed outside my psychological comfort zone. Combat was horrendous, but I was trained for it. This was the first time I directly encountered the long-term results of armed conflict on the innocent.

 

Some statistics: According to Unicef and Save the Children , 426 million children are living in conflict zones, 1/5th of the world's children. 27 million children will be born into conflict zones this year.

 

 

It's hard these days to imagine a planet without war, or the environmental and human degradation that war amplifies, or causes. Armed conflict impacts all of us, even if we live protected lives far away from the battlefield.  What can we do here, from the relative safety of our homes? At the very least, we can monitor the foreign policy initiatives and arms sales of our government. After all, we are the only nation on earth that unleashed an atomic weapon to "end" a war.

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When Writers Lose Their Freedom

"That Tumbling Passage," © copyright Mary Louise Long 2021. A painter who always surprises me with her inventive and beautifully rendered images, Mary Louise, a dear friend from college, continually inspires and encourages my own creative process. With thanks for permission to use this image.

 

If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free. 

 

-Salman Rushdie  from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture 5/12/2012, Pen World Voices Festival.

 

Dedicated to Jimmy Lia, the founder of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, and the courageous reporters who kept working at constant risk to their lives and freedom.

 

During the long months of lockdown, I could not read or write any fiction. I read poems but the muse for writing  poetry had fled. I abandoned a collection of novellas—two written before the pandemic—and a collection of prose poems—ten written before the pandemic. Daily life had become surreal. Time slowed, but it was a mobius loop, a tunnel, with no end in sight, a constant barrage of statistics, importunities, and logistics. How will we get food in the house? How will we do our laundry, visit a doctor, stay safe? We concluded emails, texts and phone calls with those very words: "stay safe." I began a dedicated blog book, Virus Without Borders, and this seemed to be enough to keep my writer's muscle supple. I didn't want to do much more. But no one was telling me what to write about and what I couldn't write about. As a writer, no matter the illusion of incarceration during the pandemic, I remained free. Without the censorship of the marketplace, I was even more free. My goal was not to sell Virus Without Borders, but to witness the event and create a well-written document for a post-pandemic digital archive.

 

After vaccination, the muse loosened and I began working on a new short story idea set in the colonial past. It moved slowly and I could not figure out why; once I begin to write, I usually write rapidly. What was different? Why was I hesitating, and worse—self-censoring? The answer is unsettling: Given the mood in the country right now and all the unpleasant –often  uncalled for—white shaming, I was concerned that the story may not be well received by Black readers.

 

Of mixed heritage, I do not consider myself "white," unless that is also a synonym for "privilege," but there it is: according to some who choose to label me with racial epithet, I am "white." Even an Asian American college friend refers to me as "Caucasian" these days. How sad is that, not to mention genetically and biologically mistaken.

 

Nonetheless, as I was drafting the first few paragraphs of my new story, I asked myself: What right do I have to imagine what it felt like to be an enslaved child, to tell a story from that child's POV when I am so utterly removed from that experience?

 

The muse ground to a halt. And no matter how many times I told myself that every writer and artist must feel absolutely free to create compassionate, empathetic work, without restraint, I could not continue, not for a while anyway.

 

Years ago, when Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran, received the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Stories, I devoured them all in one sitting. They are beautifully written. But I was in a post-Vietnam politically correct outrage, and wondered why he had "appropriated," these stories, rather than encouraged the Vietnamese immigrants he had befriended in New Orleans to write the stories themselves. Well, they couldn't, or not yet, not at that time. Olen Butler had served as a translator during his stint as a soldier in Vietnam, he loved the people he encountered, and cared about their fate. The collection was an act of empathy, what the Europeans, in their greater wisdom and maturity, would call un homage.

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What Photographs Can Do

Half-plate daguerreotype of the Rutgers Female Institute, Class of 1848, located at that time on Madison Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Vintage slip of paper attached to case mat reads "Carrie Hubbell's Graduating Class at Rutgers–Carrie is in upper row–2nd from left hand with fan. Henrietta Piercy with long curls in right hand corner on floor." 
 
"Reading" the photograph, it is interesting that there are no Black females. The school was the first institution of higher learning for women in New York City. Black women would have still been enslaved. CB
 
 
With thanks to Jeffrey Kraus for permission to use this image.
 

 

What Photographs Can Do

 

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt. -Susan Sontag, On Photography

 

A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away. -Eudora Welty

 

It's easy to like Jeff Kraus when you first meet him. He wears a ponytail, his features are soft, and his smile welcoming. And even though he lives at the end of a hidden, almost secret driveway, his house is light-filled and open. One of the pre-eminent collectors of antique photography, I had originally met him during a pandemic walk as we shouted our hellos from opposite sides of the road. He was sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, Jo Ann. And, one day, as I was walking with my friend, Helene, who knows everyone in town and insisted on an introduction, we stopped to talk. Jeff's voice and gestures seemed familiar; I suddenly realized that I know his brother. Over these past difficult months, we continued to talk now and again, and got to know each other, as one does in passing.

 

I had studied the history of photography in graduate school and when Jeff told me about his collection, I couldn't wait to see it. We agreed that a post-pandemic visit to his house would be a day of celebration. Fully vaccinated, we made the plan. And there he was, and there I was, and there Jo Ann was, all of us unmasked.

 

I brought my two precious daguerreotypes with me to begin our conversation. Jeff opened them with the precision of a surgeon, his hands as long-fingered and elegant as an artist's. Separating the plated image from the matting and the case, both of which are significant to a collector, appraiser, or curator, he began to talk. Underneath the image there is often a browned piece of paper, he explained, which can sometimes identify the sitter or the photographer. More research then has to be done. "Circa 1850," Jeff said, about halfway through the daguerreotypes' 1840-1860  lifespan. 1850. Now that was a year, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act, ten years prior to the Civil War. My imagination and curiosity clicked. Who were these people who sat for their photograph, a vice-like device holding their heads still for the long minutes it took to achieve an exposure?

 

We moved on to his formidable collection filling drawers and blanketing the walls. It includes daguerreotypes in various sizes, tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews.

 

I was curious about his collecting impulse as my father was also a collector, albeit of paintings. Is it obsession, passion, greed? Is it a way to enter into a past life, a past world, to document historical moments, continue the process of gathering history into accessible stories? I suppose the answers are different for everyone. But what most collectors seem to have in common is the origin story of their collecting; it often begins by accident.

 

In Jeff's case, his father owned an antiquarian book selling business when he was growing up. Like all kids, he hung out, and was also asked to help out. If photographs arrived in the boxes of books, he asked if he could take them home. That was  the beginning of his fascination, and his personal collection, which continued during his years as an Executive Director of an HIV/AIDS service organization. Retired, he has been able to devote himself full-time to his avocation. He buys and sells, lends items from his collection to museums and film companies, and keeps a well-written blog.

 

I could have stayed for hours asking questions and perusing numerous files of photographs, each with its singular back story, all of them portals into another time and place. Historians savor such collections as amplifications of the written record; they "read" a photograph's nuances. But what if that historical record disappears? How will scholarship change, how has it already changed now that we only save our writing and photos to the cloud—or  hardware—that  soon becomes obsolete? How will historians retrieve our past?

 

I asked Jeff this question in a follow-up email; it's been troubling me for years. His answer was not consoling: "It will be basically unretrievable," he wrote. "History will be written as it was before the advent of photography. Whatever degree of objectivity we think exists will diminish, although of course photography is not objective, either in intent or content." 

 

I hope he is wrong, that a technology will surface to ensure that our private collections—manuscripts, emails, photographs—are available to future historians to document, interpret and reinterpret our lives.

 

 

 Jeff Kraus has two websites. For sale items, click here:  www.antiquephotographics.com 

 

 To view his personal collection, click here:  Jeffrey Kraus's collection site

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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