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This Thanksgiving: Gratitude and Admiration for Courageous Writers

The cast of "La Fuerza de Antígona" meets the playwright Tlaloc Rivas (upper right) for the first time and poses for a photo © by Carol Bergman 2021

 

This Thanksgiving: Gratitude andAdmiration for Courgaeous Writers

 

And above all else: we must look to our children.

They are the seeds of what is our potential

As a society. We can no longer blindly

Dismiss the wisdom they carry beyond

 their years.

They are the vaccine, the hope, the revolution…

The world has already begun to devour us all

Whatever is left is up to you.

 

-from "La Fuerza de Antígona"  by Tlaloc Rivas

 

  

I waited in the lobby until the student performers emerged from backstage. The playwright, Tlaloc Rivas, was also there. It was the first time the play had been realized by performers on the stage, and though the audience was sparse in the SUNY New Paltz Main Stage last Saturday night, it was an important occasion, a text come to life.

 

I had talked briefly to Rivas after I introduced myself, and asked for some help pronouncing his Meso-American first name, but my presence was eclipsed by the students, all still masked as they had been on the stage, arms raised in anticipation of embrace as they shouted thankyous for the play Rivas had gifted them. They fell into his arms and then posed for a photo. I can't imagine that the script was easy to memorize, but they had done well with the long passages of rhythmic verse, inspired by Sophocles' Antigone.

 

Reading the production script a few days later I could see how the students had so readily attached to Rivas and his work, before even meeting him in person.  The play was inspired by the atrocities on our border during the Trump regime, Rivas explains, and is written to be spoken, appropriately by young people, it seems to me, the next generation, soon to graduate. They will be living with consequences of the ongoing border atrocity, among so many others.

 

"Strive in your casting to be as inclusive with regard to ethnicity, gender identity or expression, ability, religion, incarceration status, or national origin," Rivas writes in the stage directions. "Happy to work with any director, company, or university to accommodate to specific needs..."  As they continue to wrestle with the Eurocentric canon, plays not to be discarded but to be studied in the context of heightened awareness, the faculty committee that chooses plays every season at SUNY took Rivas up on his offer and his challenge.

 

How does a Mexican-American boy, raised in Baja, California by a mother and her six sisters, become an admired socially conscious playwright and theater professor with a profound knowledge of the classics? His trajectory was unusual and certainly an inspiration to students:  He delayed his college entrance to the University of California Santa Cruz  and  looked after his younger siblings so his mother could return to college first. "It's what Latino families do," he said. "We look after each other."  Later, he went on to earn his MFA at the University of Washington.

 

The determined, forthright women in his life are echoed in his writing. "Should I call you a feminist?" I asked during a telephone interview. We laughed, unsure if we can  still use that word given the rapid changes in the language of gender identity. And the play is bi-lingual. Though I don't speak or understand Spanish, the dialogue was so well contextualized that I understood everything and was ready to return to my own study of America's second language after abandoning it for French when I moved to Europe.

 

"There are members of the cast who do speak Spanish — and there are others who are making the effort to do so, just like any other project that involves Shakespeare/or accents," Rivas said in a statement he made to the Department of Theater Arts after an article in The Oracle, the student newspaper, complained about the casting of non-Spanish speakers.

 

The complaint in the newspaper was mis-guided and mis-reported; it has since been withdrawn and rewritten. Fortunately, Rivas's maturity, and the goodwill of the theater department, kept the rehearsals humming. Kudos to them and all writers and educators who refuse to be censored, silenced, or manipulated in the current politically correct environment, however we define it. 

 

It had been a while since I'd been to a live performance. This was a good one. It's a masterful work, polemical yet mythic, a contemporized Greek tragedy about a despotic ruler and the imperative of resistance.

 

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 82

The dead tree across the road. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021

And Then A Tree Fell Down

 

I don't know that I could have admitted it to myself, but I just wanted it all to go away. And there, in New Orleans, for a few days, it seemed like it had.

 

 -Alexis C. Madrigal, co-founder, the COVID Tracking Project,  in The Atlantic, 11/9/21

 

Torrential rain again and predictable flash flooding last Friday. I got caught trying to make it from the gym to my car. It wasn't as though I hadn't checked my weather app numerous times before leaving the house and was taken by surprise. I was not surprised.

 

Why do we do this to ourselves? What was preventing me from accepting the facts?  I was determined to slice in a work out to my busy day, so I just kept on going. Had I checked if we had enough water stored, or replaced the batteries in the flashlights, or stocked up on candles? I had not.

 

The psychologists call this denial, a refusal to accept imminent danger and/or a way of coping with endemic danger.  But even the word endemic is challenging. COVID is already endemic. When and how will we accept this?  Double vaccinated, Alexis Madrigal, who has been writing about COVID since the pandemic began, decided to risk a trip to a friend's wedding in New Orleans. He came home sick, upending his family's life for several weeks. Does it matter that he wasn't very sick? Not really, he explains in The Atlantic article. Unwittingly, unintentionally, he'd taken a calculated risk and endangered his elderly relatives and his still unvaccinated children.

 

How does a calculated risk work? I know, for example, that if the dead tree across the road is not taken down, if I don't report it to the town out of laziness or disregard, it will fall on the wires just outside our house. There'll be a power outage, as there was after the torrential rain and high winds last Friday, and then we'll have to deal with that immediate calamity having denied that it might happen.

 

In addition to denial, a fatalism sets in:  Okay, bring it on, I'll get sick. But I'm not going to take any more precautions. Get moving, get back into the flow of life. Winter is coming, it's getting dark so early, we have to get out, see friends and family, all those postponed hugs.

 

Last night I went to the theater on the SUNY New Paltz campus for the first time since COVID hit. Strict protocols were in place—vaccine and mask mandate—and the audience was sparse. Even the student actors were masked, tested weekly during rehearsal. I felt safe, or safe enough, and so pleased to be at a live performance again. Tomorrow I'm taking a 90-minute bus ride into the city to meet a cousin visiting from Seattle. There is no way I wouldn't do this for her, and for me. What will it feel like at Port Authority after so many months avoiding what many have called "the armpit of New York?" Will I be able to use the bathroom there? Will I be able to walk on the streets of the city without my mask? Should I?

 

I think our minds and hearts trick us at times, tell us all is okay when it is not yet okay and may never be entirely okay. A fatalism sets in and we cocoon ourselves in a fugue state. Then reality pierces our well-being: COVID is endemic, too many people are still unvaccinated, Dr. Fauci warns there may be more variants, and we have to live with COVID now, and still, and for the foreseeable future. Will it get easier?  I hope so.

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EVOLUTION

Chief Robert Lucchesi poses for a portrait shot after a training session at the FBI National Academy. Photo, courtesy FBI.

 

EVOLUTION

 

 

An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others."

 

― Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption"

 

Falling down is not a failure. Falling comes when you stay where you have fallen.

 

-Socrates

 

 

A newcomer to New Paltz in the spring of 2018, I was still using my GPS to get around, and had rolled through a stop sign just north of the SUNY campus. I wrote a blog post about the encounter I had with a police officer at the time, and how unthreatening it was to me, a white, older woman. And though the officer stood behind my left shoulder as he asked for my license and registration, and had his hand on his holster, I wasn't afraid.

 

My daughter had a Black boyfriend when she was in college—his  dad worked for the court system and gave his son a badge to clip into his wallet—but I was a nervous mom every time they stepped into the car and drove from the city to Philadelphia, or Philadelphia to New York. In fact, there hasn't been Black male friend, acquaintance, or student I've had in my lifetime who hasn't had a problem, a scare, or worse, with law enforcement. Now the New York Times has just completed an investigative report on traffic stops, how they go down in various places in the country—more than 400 motorists killed in recent years—and I decided it was time for me to interview the Chief of Police in my small town to find out how the New York State mandate for reform is going. As everywhere, there have been incidents here, and a demand for transparency, more training, and systemic change;  a new oversight commission is forming. Unfortunately, the conversation thus far has often been irate, beleaguered and uncivil—evident  on the Town's YouTube Channel—more  so during our difficult Covid months.

 

"We're all hurting," Chief Robert Lucchesi told me about half-way into our long conversation in his office the other day, as he reflected on the vulnerability we are all feeling these days—personally, professionally, even politically. He's an educated and thoughtful man, with an MA in Public Administration, a love of nonfiction literature, and a devotion to New Paltz where he was born and raised, the first in his family to go to college. He still lives here with his doctor wife and three growing children.  The shift from warrior to guardian mentality has not been difficult for him; he has a nurturing persona. The wellness of his family, the community and his officers, concern him every day, he explains, ruefully.  Recently, he's approached the local clergy to offer pastoral care to his staff, if they request it.  "I wish we had more safe spaces for conversation," he says. "It's a difficult time, we are in the midst of a reckoning, everyone is guarded. And it's hard to find good officers, and not to lose them to higher paying localities. When we have a shortage of coverage, everyone works exhausting extra shifts."

 

I had first met Chief Lucchesi before Covid when he was still a Lieutenant. A friend of a friend had called when she heard I was a journalist. She'd found a white supremacist flyer—a blood libel screed—in  a Village Hall waste paper basket. It mentioned a recent synagogue shooting and she wanted to know what to do—anonymously. I went to the police station right away. I'd been feeling unsettled. As often as I've encountered anti-Semitism, it always shocks and frightens me. I thought I might have to explain blood libel, but I didn't; Lucchesi was both informed and compassionate.

 

"We see people at their most vulnerable and embarrassing," he says, "and some of what they tell us is protected by privacy laws." Therefore, total transparency is never possible, especially if there is an ongoing investigation. That was the case with the flyer, even after a detective was assigned. Still, I felt reassured.

 

Are there any similarities between reporters and detectives, protecting sources and informants? Probably, though this would be a long conversation involving lawyers and constitutional experts. What we do have in common, it seems to me,  is the sensation of  being on the outside looking in, both of the community and observing the community. It's not always comfortable. We have to understand our own backstories, life experience, and biases to work effectively.

 

I thought of a New York City transit cop I once knew who never left his gun behind, even on his days off, and saw perps everywhere. He was on high alert, constantly vigilant, and more than likely suffering from PTSD. How can such a person change without struggle, without re-education, without psychological support? The question is rhetorical, of course. Much needs to be done.  If only I could clone Chief Lucchesi and send him to every town and city in the country to hire, train and retrain a cadre of 21st century guardians. If this were at all possible, police departments everywhere—even the most militaristic, rigid, systemically racist, and terrified of change—would be on the path to evolution and redemption.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 81

A Spatial Awakening

 

 

What is design's role in times of crisis? Communities and individuals come together to aid each other, push for change, and create new spaces, objects, and services. Epidemics—both in the past and in the present—have triggered the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease while exposing systemic gaps and failures. 

 

The Cooper Hewitt Museum announces "Design & Healing; Creative Responses to Epidemics," December 10, 2021-August 14, 2022    

 

 

Michael Murphy, Co-Founder of the not-for-profit firm MASS Design, made it onto 60 Minutes last night. Leslie Stahl was enthralled, and who can blame her? This young, competent, forward thinking, altruistic architect is an inspiration. When Covid hit—not long after his firm completed assignments in Haiti and Rwanda—he  offered the expertise and services of his company to address the structural violence of our most vulnerable built spaces such as hospitals, housing projects, tightly sealed office buildings, and nursing homes, among so many others in the United States, a so-called developed and enlightened country where only the affluent live well. Infrastructure issues? You aren't kidding. Look around at home, close to home, on your way to and from home. Do our shelters heal or hurt? Make a list of your observations. Then try to make some changes, or ask for changes, or vote for changes.

 

Within minutes of hearing Murphy speak, I became fixated on air flow and the inadequate ventilation in every indoor space I'd been in for the past week. Murphy calls this a "spatial awakening."  I'd gone to vote in the Student Union on the SUNY New Paltz campus, for example, a state university with limited endowment compared to the private universities, and found myself on line in a small, completely enclosed room, no ventilation ducts in sight. And though I was masked and boostered, I was still uncomfortable; this was not a safe space. When one of the poll workers rushed around sanitizing surfaces with a rag and spray, and then offered me a pair of gloves, I wanted to shout, "AIRBORNE!" or, alternatively, "ARE YOU INSANE?"

 

I remembered my doctor mother constantly opening windows in the winter months and in the summer, too, in air conditioned rooms where air does not circulate well. In medical school, she'd learned about the rampant transmission of both TB and influenza in the hospital wards where wounded WW I soldiers were recovering from their wounds. My mother never forgot that lesson. Windows remained open in our apartment even in the coldest weather. I wore layers and sat close to the steamy radiators running on gallons and gallons of fossil fuel. But I digress. So, here's a question: Why did it take such a long time for the experts to figure out that Covid was airborne? And why didn't the word "ventilation" come up in the conversation right away? Or did it?

 

Take a look at MASS Design's website, click the photo above. And then take a trip to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York after December 10 for a special exhibition on creative responses to epidemics. Design has a role in a time of crisis, and so do we, each and every one of us.

 

 

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