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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Eight


Fifty Million Children



From the start, elected officials seemed  more concerned about reopening bars and restaurants than safely reopening schools that hold the future of 50 million children in their hands.


New York Times Editorial, "School kids Are Not Alright," August 22, 2021



So here we are, in the mitigation stage of this pandemic, most of the world still  unvaccinated, the children on this continent under 12 still unvaccinated, and school starting. Most parents are relieved, counting the days until their kids can get back into the classroom; kids, too, probably, unless they have forgotten what school is. One parent of a five-year-old told me, "He likes to get really close to his friends and hug and talk. How will his teacher navigate that?"


It is still really hard to see little ones masked, though we know they have to be in certain situations and will have to be all day at school. The other day, I drove down to the Gardiner Library to observe Carolyn Best-Hall and her trained miniature poodle, Fletcher, host a "read to Fletcher" session. Three kids had signed up, or their parents had, I should say. Carolyn had hoped the session could be outside, but it was too hot, so we went into the capacious community room. She laid out her magic blanket on the floor, everyone masked including the hovering parents nearby. Was this safe enough? Let's hope so.


There was much needed joy in these brief moments at the library. Carolyn was immediately connected to the children, asked interesting questions, and remained patient if there was a faltering word. The children stopped occasionally to talk to Fletcher, or pet him. Mostly, he was snoozing, comfortably. As I was smiling under my mask, I assumed that the parents were also. The scene was sweetness amplified.


Carolyn is a volunteer with Hudson Valley Paws for a Cause She and her husband own Cherry Top Dairy in Newburgh, NY, if you are ever up or down that way—they specialize in soft ice cream—and  when she's not bookkeeping, cleaning machines and running for supplies, she spends her time making therapy dog visits, mostly to nursing homes before Covid hit, and now to local libraries for "literacy visits," a welcome respite from at-home learning. One  fraught parent I chatted to said she was looking for something to do with her active child, anything at all, to get her away from the computer and out of the house on a sunny day. 


I don't have young children so can't imagine what it's been like this past school year, but I can attest to the exhaustion of  teaching Zoom classes, much as I appreciate the technology. I am beat to a frazzle when I'm done and have trouble unwinding. I want to eat, even though I always eat before a workshop. Last night, my internet crashed in the middle of critquing students' work, and I was even more frazzled. Thank goodness one of my calm students texted me as I was rebooting. "We are continuing, the conversation," he wrote.  After we signed off, I could barely watch the baseball game though I knew I wanted the Yankees to win. 


Strange, that this is the second post in recent weeks I've written about a special dog, and the first I've written for a long while about children. It got me thinking about the less privileged children left behind, or the children in war zones, or the children at the airport in Kabul. I hope they get to flip the pages of a book in a safe school setting or a library soon. And I hope all the dire predictions about missed days in a classroom are wrong, and that all children everywhere will catch up and speed ahead into a less stressful, mask free and/or war free future.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Seven


We Haven't Forgotten



I want to tear myself from this place, from this reality, rise up like a cloud and float away, melt into this humid summer night and dissolve somewhere far, over the hills. But I am here, my legs blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away.

― Khaled Hosseini, "The Kite Runner"




The word "unprecedented" surfaced out of  an anxious restless sleep last night. I wrote a poem in my journal out of this mood while I was still in bed. I didn't want to lose the inspiration. I can worry about everything, that is easy for me; writing is the centripetal force that grounds me. Not only is the American government abandoning an estimated 200,000 translators, workers, journalists— only all the gods know who else—they  are doing this so that everyone in the world can see what they are doing. Darkness visible.


Excuses abound: Covid at the American Embassy delayed the visa applications. That was a good one.


Watching the first episode of the series Unforgotten last night for the second time, the protagonist, a detective—what else these days—is struggling with a buried skeleton. Shall the police spend limited resources on a possible murder that is long ago history? Is moral responsibility so easily expunged? Certainly not if people are still living who are affected, the detective tells us. She's played by Nicola Walker, one of my favorite British actors. The script has an ethical center, a joy for any actor with a conscience to learn. It zings off the screen into our hearts and minds.


When does the past become the past? If ever? I thought of the slave trade, enslavement itself, and the reckoning that is efflorescing in literature and the arts. I thought of the catastrophic US departure from Afghanistan. A poet, or dramatist, or novelist will certainly remember and write about it.


Unprecedented, the word that surfaced in my anxious, restless sleep. I wrote a FB message to Brian LaGuardia, another soldier who became a relief worker. I thought he was in Kabul, but he was posting photos of Central Park—ducks in Central Park. R&R, visiting his family, he was safe, returning to the field soon to help the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. I remember the day Brian came up to me at an Another Day in Paradise book reading at NYU. He was just home from Iraq, and like Robert Séamus Macpherson, intended to segue to humanitarian work. He had presence, in the Buddhist sense, and I've followed him all these years on FB.


What accounts for people who have altruistic impulses? And for those who don't? Is there any corner of the world that feels stable and healthy right now? That has a humane government and health care system, beaten back the pandemic, donated extra vaccines willingly, quieted their white supremacist, nationalistic rage, emptied their jails of dissident writers and journalists, and committed to ZERO carbon emissions RIGHT NOW?


How we move forward to end war and hunger and disease and corporate greed when the pandemic is really, truly in the rear-view mirror will be inscribed in Heaven, or in Hell.


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When a Soldier Becomes a Writer






There's something happening here/ What it is ain't exactly clear/ There's a man with a gun over there /Telling me I got to beware

Lyrics by Stephen Stills, "For What It's Worth" 


   Performed by Buffalo Springfield, it was recorded on December 5, 1966, released as a single on Atco Records 



It's never a good idea, or even respectful, to ask a former soldier if he thinks a war has been worthwhile, or all for nothing, but after reading Robert Séamus Macpherson's gripping book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis, I decided to take the chance. He hadn't been an ordinary soldier, he'd been a Colonel in the United States Marines for thirty years, and segued to humanitarian work with the agency CARE. Even more unusual, he'd become a writer, and a good one. So I asked about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, our most recent 20-year war. Colonel Macpherson had started his military career in Vietnam, and after a very bad day, he'd ended up in the hospital for a year. Had it been worth it? His own injuries, all those lives damaged and lost, comrades and civilians? We were on a Zoom call so I wasn't sure if he threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders, or just quoted casualty and death statistics. Maybe both. Thousands, I thought I heard him say. And where are we now? Just this past weekend, the Taliban has taken three regions in that beleaguered country and families with means are scrambling to get out. It's reminiscent of the airlift out of Saigon when the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong  entered the city on April 30 1975. The Fall of Saigon, as it became known, led to the reunification of the country. Not to detour too much here, but the future of Afghanistan, with its fundamentalist warlords, does not bode well for women, or future tourism.


I was talking with Bob, his wife Veronica, and Bob's service dog, Blue, while they were on vacation in Maine. At my request, Bob introduced me formally to Blue, trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs . And, yes, I was talking to this adorable 90-pound white Labrador, who is by Bob's side 24-7, an "empath," the trainers call him.


Though it is not easy to read at times, Stewards of Humanity is both a reminder and a warning. All those quagmires: Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Rwanda. Refugees. Genocide. Death everywhere. Danger constantly. Is it any wonder that soldiers and humanitarian workers return from the field with PTSD, and worse? It took a while for Bob to acknowledge his struggle, but he faced it, as he has all the other challenges in his life.


Empathy seems to expand inside the Zoom room as we talk, filling the virtual spaces with healthy, focused energy. Bob has read my blog and commented on my obsession with justice, like his own. It pleases me that he's noticed, though I am supposed to be interviewing him, and now the tables are turned, a bit disconcerting. Never mind, we have a lot in common, a lot to talk about.


Veronica is by Bob's side, also. They met in Atlanta at the CARE headquarters, second marriage for him, first for her. She's now a clinical social worker with a specialty in oncology, and helps Bob with his website and social media. Two children from Bob's first marriage are doing well: his daughter is a lawyer, his son a tattoo artist in Hawaii. "I'm proud of them both," Bob says. He has grandchildren now,too.


And then there's the writing, which all writers, including yours truly, know full well is therapeutic, albeit it is not therapy per se.


"Tell me about your writing process," I asked in an email exchange after our interview.


"My absolutely best writing day is to get up, take Blue for a long morning walk with Veronica, come home and have nothing in front of me for the morning except my writing. After three or four hours, I'm expended. Then, I go to the gym, come home, feed Blue and spend the evening with Veronica. Those days are perfection." 


"The book is very detailed. Did you keep notes or a journal all those years?"


"I did not keep notebooks. I believe the events I write about affected me deeply. I found that once I started writing about them, all the facts seemed to unfold like a movie. Every name, event and nuance seemed to appear in front of me—just when I needed it."


As I am always telling my students to keep a journal, I was disappointed. How else to retrieve stories when memory is usually so elusive? But for Bob, they've been etched into his brain, a permanent record to carry forward into his work.


After such an accomplishment—the book took five years to complete—I wondered if he would continue. I needn't have worried. He's already at work on a second—about his relationship with Blue.


To pre-order Stewards of Humanity, go to Robert Macpherson's website:




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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy Six

Writing Our Own Headlines


I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the sky:

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change but I cannot die.


-from "The Cloud" by Percy Bysshe Shelley



It's my husband, Jim's, birthday this week, a big one. We're having three celebrations, though we've had to postpone the live city gathering with his table tennis friends, and will have it on Zoom—an abundance of caution—until boosters, probably.


Jim is a tournament table tennis player and has been commuting to the city to play since he got vaccinated. An entrepreneurial coach opened ping "pods,"  limited in size, hepa filters, vaccination required. It feels safe enough for right now. Who knows when the abundance of caution will not be necessary? No one. Or, maybe it will continue to be necessary for a good long while and we'll just get used to it. Adaptation.


First headline of the day: Humans are adaptable.


I'm reminded that Jim, with one leg shorter than the other, is an (undetected) polio survivor. The left side of his body is smaller than the right, and despite a delayed diagnosis, numerous orthopedic problems over the years, and numerous surgeries, he's always been an active athlete. Needless to say, remembering the blessed advent of the polio vaccines, which came too late for him, he was first in line for the Covid vaccine. No anti-vaxxers in this house.


When he was a boy, Jim played the hoops at the local playground in San Francisco, and when I met him at UC Berkeley, he was into touch football.  I taught him how to play tennis and never got a game off him since. In London, he learned squash, then racquetball when we returned to New York, and now it's table tennis. He's watching the Olympic TT finals as I write. Table Tennis is an Olympic sport that amateurs play at tournaments into their 90's and beyond. 


Second headline of the day: Hit that ball right and feel joy.


Last night we went out to eat at a local restaurant with a scenic view of the Minnewaska Ridge. The sunsets are glorious up here in New Paltz, NY, and I caught a magnificent one on my iPhone. Jim complimented me on the composition, said I was a good photographer, but I demurred and said, "It's the iPhone camera."  I didn't know the scientific name for the clouds, but there was something about them that was familiar. I put a pic up on Instagram and FB and got a reply or two, then looked them up in my "cloud book" when we got home. I get swept away by new knowledge, never stop reading, or studying, or writing. Nor does Jim. Ours is a long marriage and I'm grateful I have a partner who enjoys sport, beautiful landscapes, the acquisition of knowledge, and writing as much as I do. He's a pretty terrific guy, gentle in nature, smart as all get out, and funny.


Last headline of the day: Happy Birthday to Jim. This Virus Without Borders chapter is dedicated to you.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy-Five


Whiplash; Some Thoughts




The American political system has come down with a case of long Covid.


 -Alexander Burns, Political Memo, The New York Times, 7/31/21




How are we doing this week, how are we feeling? Not so good. The parking lot of my apartment complex is empty, everyone traveling and visiting and hugging and breaking bread together in faraway locations, and no mechanism to mandate vaccination or masks in the private sector. But my son-in-law's parents are not traveling from the UK, nor is his sister and her family. A reminder that this is still a global pandemic. On we go.


We're all exhausted by the restrictions, of course, and skeptical of the dangers of Delta if we don't know anyone who is afflicted. Nothing to do with me.  Really? Fully vaccinated friends headed for Boulder to see a new grandchild are navigating the conundrums with care. Do we wear a mask to protect this baby, or not? How will babies grow up only recognizing their grandparents' eyes and eyebrows? Though seemingly humorous, this is not a joke. Remember those experiments with motherless monkeys? They became attached to mannequins. What does this tell us? That attachment is vital and always possible, but can be odd and sad. We—humans and apes and other sentient beings—will  grab onto anything, anything at all to survive.


Am I supposed to applaud the ingenuity of mannequins and robots? My own personal Bank of America robot, Erica, just wrote me a very personal email suggesting we get together for a heart-to-heart talk about my finances. Not interested.  This writer insists on real-time connection. Mask-free real-time connection. Not telehealth. Not labyrinthian customer service, dial 1 or dial 2. Dial? Who dials anymore?


But we've got the Olympics to distract us. Simone Biles, for example. What an athlete, what a person, what a back story. Human to the core despite the intense sometimes robotic training and sacrifice of that training, despite the sexual assault, she has survived and thrived. And there  is even an announcement today that she will compete again this week. Bravas are not enough. I envy the editor or ghost who will mentor and shape her book. Or has she already written one? Oh, I just checked, she has. Well, maybe she'll write another in a few years' time.


Simone reminds me of myself—if that is possible. When I was about ten-years-old, I, too, reveled in the release and joy of athleticism; I told my parents I wanted to be a competitive ice skater. They obliged. My stepfather took me to Wollman rink early in the mornings before school for training. But books and school were just as important to me, and to my highly educated parents, so after falling asleep at my desk for a month or two, I quit, or they persuaded me to quit. I did have choices, however: I chose to not compete. In other words, I did not require--or latch onto--an athletic training to survive. I was not a baby monkey in search of surrogate parenting. Are Olympic athletes symbiotically attached to their trainers who push them and push them relentlessly? Just a question.


In order to do one thing, one often has to sacrifice another. I still had plenty of sport in my life—tennis, track, field hockey, basketball, softball, volleyball, swimming—and loved it all. To this day, I get up from my desk at regular intervals and move around athletically, if only for a hike, or to take the compost to the Village compost pile, or swim laps and laps and laps. I only know a few writers who can sit at their desks for hours and hours.


So what is happening today, as I write? I've got a Zoom call in a few minutes. I have read the headlines and await announcement of boosters, as do all of us who got our shots early. A mask is in the back pocket of my shorts again, and I look forward to hearing about any ingenious protocols my friends devise to bond with their new grandchild. How is it possible to remain distanced from a baby? Beats me.






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