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When My Fitbit Talks to Me

My very cool, black, stylish Charge 4 Fitbit reminding me to "exhale."

 

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

 

-Marshall McLuhan

 

 

My husband bought me my second  Fitbit for our anniversary. The first one died just out of warranty several years ago and I didn't replace it. And though, in general, I resist tracking, and don't need incentive to exercise, I'm enjoying my new and improved Fitbit.

 

Does it matter that I am being surveilled from afar? Yes and no. I find it interesting that, except for the step counter, most of  the functions stop working when I am indoors, hidden from the eyes of various satellites; they click in again when I am outside. Therefore, it follows, that when the GPS is fully engaged, Fitbit, despite disclaimers and promises, knows exactly where I am a lot of the time, and is selling this information to someone or other somewhere. Does this matter? Not to me. Not one whit. I'm not a rapacious consumer and really don't care.

 

I have a cousin who keeps her Fitbit on at night. It lets her know how she is sleeping and if she still has a heartbeat. Of course, she has to wake up in the morning to find her pulse underneath her Fitbit, which has already recorded her spectral data. Let sleeping bones lie, I say, without the intrusion of yet another electronic device.

 

My husband wisely chose a fashionable black Fitbit. It's very thin and light, and goes well with everything I wear, which is mostly work-out clothes now that I live far away from glamorous urban streets. And it talks to me, or sends me messages, white letters on the black screen. Forgive the paraphrases as I barely read them, though I know they are designed and written to affirm and reinforce my efforts:

 

           Time to get ready for bed.

           You've really accomplished something. Give yourself a hug.

           Don't forget to breathe.

           Take a break.

           

The first time I took my new Fitbit into the pool I forgot to start the swim function. That's what I told myself. In truth, my glasses were packed away and I couldn't see it. No worries! When I checked the app on my phone, the app and the Fitbit  perfectly synched, Mr./Ms/Mrs. Fitbit told me, in so many words, that it/they/him/her/he noticed I'd been swimming. Well done!  

 

We all need reinforcement, so they say. Not me. I'm reinforced enough. Mostly I am enjoying my Fitbit because I can see the time, albeit only when I am indoors, I can praise myself for reaching my "goals," which are more or less the same every day, and I can admire the way the really cool wearable electronic device looks on my wrist.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 80

Early in the pandemic, before masks, long before vaccinations, the author ventures out in her home-made hijab. Photo © copyright Jim Bergman 2020.

 

DEFIANCE

 

What am I describing?
I am describing a dream
in which nobody has died...

 

from "Small Talk"

by Eleanor Lerman

 

  

I thought she was a nice woman, a woman who might become a friend. I'd given her my card, chatted poolside, but when I met her in the locker room this past Saturday, a small space, and asked her to put on her mask, she refused.  "Well I don't know, Carol, I've been vaccinated," she said. 

 

I tried to explain what I'd heard, what I knew about breakthrough infections, the refusal of our gym to institute a mask mandate for everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, as Mayor De Blasio has smartly ordered in the city.  I tried to calm down. At least she's vaccinated, I thought. It had taken her a while, but she'd done it, finally.

 

Still, I decided right then and there that we couldn't be friends. It was the defiance. Her brother-in-law was visiting, they had been partying the night before. "So you've had exposure to someone outside the area," I said. "As has my husband. He was in the city yesterday. So I'll keep my mask on to protect you." 

 

"Well I don't know, Carol, I'm vaccinated," she repeated, sarcastically this time. The definition of sarcasm is "tearing flesh." That's what her retort felt like.

 

"Have you heard of asymptomatic exponential contagion?" I asked, ever the professor.  I tried not to condescend, but I was upset.

 

"You seem to have the inside scoop. You've always had the inside scoop." 

 

No sarcasm this time, just impatience. She must have been referring to our brief conversations before she got vaccinated. She was a resister, a defiant ill-informed skeptic. How did that get broken down, I wondered?  It wasn't me that had done it.

 

"No inside scoop. I just read," I said.  "I listen. I pay attention. So many stories. We're not done with this pandemic yet."

 

She left in a huff, a trail of disappointment and frustration behind her; my disappointment, my frustration.

 

It's the first time in my life I've not been able to persuade, or inform, or educate. The defiance has become a wall, deeper, stronger and more insistent than simple resistance to the facts, or an ignorance of the facts.  It's aggressive, confrontational, the battlefield of our divided country.

 

Those who care and those who don't. Is that a place to begin to understand this unpleasant moment? Maybe this woman, who I had thought might be a friend, doesn't know anyone who died, or lost her job, or couldn't travel to visit her family three-thousand miles away and then missed her father's last days. Maybe she's been living in a snug pod all these months oblivious to the suffering of her neighbors, her town, her county, her country, and the world. 

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It Was Like a Dream

"An Afghan Girl" © copyright Steve McCurry 2002, before the American occupation.

IT WAS LIKE A DREAM

 

 

Awakening, basically, is a reversal of this: the patient ceases to feel the presence of illness and the absence of the world, and comes to feel the absence of his illness and the full presence of the world.

 

-Oliver Sacks, "Awakenings" 

 

 

Before the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan, there were:  248  TV Networks, 438  Radio Stations, 1669 Print Outlets, and 119 News Agencies throughout the country.  A mass media renaissance, rural and urban.  Women reporters. Women with microphones and notebooks in their hands. Men and women working together to get the story.

 

Disregard the public relations gambit as Kabul fell; the veil has dropped again in Afghanistan. Women are walking around in burqas and men are growing beards to protect themselves from abuse, and worse. And there is much transpiring in other cities and the countryside that is not being reported.

 

According to Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the new government, or re-instated government, depending on one's politics and point-of-view, is already imposing  harsh constraints on the news media (100 outlets have suspended operation entirely), harassing reporters, and threatening them.

 

"Two journalists working for the privately-owned TV channel Shamshad were prevented by a Taliban guard from doing a report outside the French embassy because they lacked a permit signed by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," says an RWB press release.  "But when they asked the guard where they should go or who they should ask for such a permit, he said, "I don't know."

 

As of today, foreign correspondents are still able to work, but they are all asking, "For how much longer?" And they are few in number so cannot report everything.

 

When the international news cycle tires of the chaotic and mis-managed American withdrawal, ordinary citizens will still be trying to survive in Afghanistan. But they will have no information or news to guide them that is not tainted by Sharia dictates of "good" and "evil."  

 

Any nation-state that slips back into fundamentalist feudalism, or reignites a former despotic regime, threatens global equilibrium. War, the degradation of the environment, migration. and yet more terrorism, will continually challenge our well-being and safety; disequilibrium will reach our shores. Sitting comfortably in our  western enclaves is an illusion; we are not protected from the repercussions of what has transpired in Afghanistan. We cannot just change the channel and hope for the best. A smart, humane foreign policy is essential going forward; no sitting president gets a pass.

 

I still have reporter friends and aid worker friends in Afghanistan. For this reason, I have not mentioned anyone by name here, or interviewed anyone I could mention by name, though the reporting I have done to write this blog post has been corroborated.  I urge my readers to continue monitoring the unfolding Afghanistan story, and to offer help to the refugees seeking asylum.

 

 

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 79

"Keep Calm and Carry On" was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II to raise morale. 2.4 millioon copies were printed, but rarely displayed. It was rediscovered in 2000 at Barter Books, a bookshop in Alnwick, England. 
 

A Meditation on Socializing in a Plague Year

 

 

We instinctively protected our friends from the knowledge we possessed…We were sure that they didn't want to know what we knew; we didn't want to know it, either.

 

       -Alexsander Hemon, "The Aquarium"

 

He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world.  

 

-Hilary Mantel, "Wolf Hall"

 

 

Labor Day Weekend. We had planned to eat outside with friends but the weather turned cool under a louring sky, as Charlotte Bronte described it. We almost cancelled but then went ahead. We drove up the Thruway to Saugerties to a renovated farm house set on ten acres. Horse country, a getaway home of two city friends. They had wanted to celebrate my husband's birthday in mid-August but couldn't make it to the barbecue. So, this was yet another celebration with a balloon and a cake, sumptuous food, and wine, held-in stories spilling rapidly, breathlessly, even though we'd kept in touch on phone and zoom and email.

 

So, we were indoors with the windows wide open, six of us in a small space, all vaccinated, but there'd  been recent travel beyond the borders of the state and the nation state, much needed travel to see family after the long Covid hiatus. Had anyone brought the Delta variant home with them? We didn't voice this concern, and for the moment, we didn't care about any potential danger. Was there any? Were we being care—less? Is the protective vaccine waning? Of a certain age, shall we say—and how can we ignore it these days, a target on our backs—only  my husband and I had landed boosters; we encouraged our friends to do the same.

 

It seemed as though every few paragraphs of shared stories, we'd redound to the pandemic, and to the logistics of staying safe in the months ahead as we move around, carry on regardless. The numbers of breakthroughs don't look good; 80 active cases this week in our small town, the SUNY students back on campus, and all the other schools starting, kids under twelve still unvaccinated, a FB photo from a friend of a Covid infected baby girl in the ICU and an admonition to pray for her.  I wish prayer would help. I wish everything and anything would help persuade those who are unvaccinated, especially, to get it done. No soft landings for anyone during a pandemic, a democratizing experience in some ways depending on individual circumstance—money, shelter, access to medical care. Yet, among all strata, classes and castes, there are many heartbreaking stories.

 

The conversation at the converted farmhouse was kinetic, joyful, suffused with laughter. The vegetable garden was overgrown, lots of kale and basil to pick, some homemade ice cream with blueberries, avocado, honey, the end of summer's bounty folded into the menu. How much we'd missed the physicality of connection, bodies in three dimension, hair a bit grayer, bodies bulging from Covid indulgence in home-cooked meals. How privileged we all were to have survived this ordeal, we agreed. None in this immediate cohort were in mourning for a loved one, though we all had suffered losses—of time, of income, of insularity from a troubled world. No such thing anymore, surely this has now clarified: Virus Without Borders. The New York Times reports this morning that we won't feel respite until next summer, that the worst of the pandemic will not be in the rear-view mirror until then.

 

Best to steel ourselves, stiff upper lips, remain calm and carry on, as the Brits would say, and how I do love them for that. It's not always an appropriate response, but I think it is at this moment of disappointment, the euphoria of vaccination evaporated.

 

Did we bring this plague on ourselves? Or the exacerbation of the plague, at least? Are we in any way responsible? And where does our individual responsibility reside? Are we so enamored of our post-modern digital lives that we've forgotten we are made of organic material, embedded in nature, susceptible to fires and floods, collapsing infrastructure, a corrupt and decrepit health care system that is not a system at all, desperate migrants pushing against our borders, mega corporations continuing to exploit labor, the rich getting richer, Mother Earth under siege? What can we do right now, this very day, to contribute to the end of this pandemic? Dear Reader, all suggestions are welcome in the comments.

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Why It Matters When Writers Are Tortured and Killed

Poet, teacher and historian, Abdullah Atefi. photo ©copyright BBC Pashto 2021

 

WHY IT MATTERS WHEN WRITERS ARE TORTURED AND KILLED

 

  

A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated...
 

― Khaled Hosseini, "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

 

If policy makers know little about Afghanistan, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan."

 

― Rory Stewart, "The Places in Between"

 

  

On August 4, in Uruzgan province's Chora District, where there was fierce fighting, and media outlets were looted and shut down, the Taliban targeted and murdered two PEN International members: poet and historian Abdullah Atefi, and journalist and spokesperson Dawa Khan Menapal. Please note that these killings took place before the Taliban over-ran Kabul, and before the American surrender. The world was not yet paying attention. In the ensuing rapacious takeover in Kabul, the news cycle focused on the evacuation and the airport, not on the notable Afghanis who had already been targeted and killed in the provinces outside Kabul.  

 

The swift, deliberate murders of Atefi and Menapal does not bode well for the future of writers and journalists in Afghanistan, especially women. The consequences of such evisceration of dissent are dire:  If reporters, writers, and broadcasters are silenced, or killed, it is tantamount to a news blackout. We will not know what is going on, and the Afghan people will not know what is going on, whether good news or bad news.

 

Who will hold the new government in Kabul to account? Who will speak out, demonstrate, remonstrate and petition if not the writers and journalists in the world that is still free? I call upon my students and colleagues to continue to provide whatever sustenance is possible to the beleaguered, terrified, hungry and suffering civilians in Afghanistan, and the refugees who have landed on our shores. Please do not switch the channel to more comforting news, or start binging on another Netflix program, or go to your refrigerator for yet another snack just yet. Please know that members of the international mother ship of  PEN (an acronym for Poets, Editors, Essayists & Novelists), the writers you know and love, authors of the books you read and then discuss in your book groups, or donate to your local library—and be grateful for that library—are  in mourning over the assassination of two of its members. They have faces, they have names, they have families:

 

Abdullah Atefi, was a member of Afghanistan PEN since 2008. He was a renowned poet and highly educated economist and  historian who had published a history of Pashto literature and culture. He made his living cultivating his land and teaching literature at a local secondary school. (I've been searching for his poems online, hopefully in translation, but haven't been able to find any as yet.)

 

Journalist Dawa Khan Menapal  worked as the chief of the now-collapsed media and information center. The day before his murder, he spoke out against the killing of Abdullah Atefi.

 

It was the Americans who created a free press and open space for dissent in Afghanistan, and it is the Americans who bear responsibility for its extinction. Yet another miscalculation.

 

***

 Sunday is my day for deep reading of the paper copy of  The New York Times. Home delivery is erratic in my area so I pick it up at a local Stewart's after my morning hike. The smell of the newsprint calms me, even if I know that the news reports won't. Last Sunday, I put the paper down and started an inventory of my published short stories, then made a decision to add a PDF Bookstore tab to this site. All proceeds will go to PEN America. Founded in 1921, PEN was one of the first international human rights organizations. I am proud to be a member of the PEN America branch in long standing.

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