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Hey, Good Lookin'



Hey, good lookin'

Say, what's cookin'?

Do you feel like bookin'

Some fun tonight?


-Cole Porter lyrics, 1943, from the Broadway Musical "Something for the Boys."



Happy New Year. We are already deep into the 21st century. Some of us have lived longer than others and have therefore witnessed and experienced more changes in behavior, language, fashion, politics, and laws, national and international. We may remember MLK, how he lived and died, Roe v. Wade, the day it passed, the ERA, how it failed to pass, and more recently, BLM. Some of us remember the draft, those that served and died in Vietnam, those who dodged into Canada. Remember the first Women's March after Trump was elected, Biden's inauguration? Sneeze (or don't, you may have Covid) and the moment is gone.


Our time lines differ, fluctuate, morph into a mobius loop of interconnected memories and notable historic events, taunting us, defining us, eluding us.


The enforced slow-down during the pandemic has not decelerated anything; life is lived forward, witnessed in the present tense. Some days it feels like catch-up. As a writer, a professor, a supposedly cultivated, educated, deep-feeling mature person, I've had to study and parse recent events through a telescopic lens, learn new pronouns, and accept them, among many other in-our-face enragements and engagements, if those words are apt, and they may not be given the current linguistic and culturally shifting mood.  It hasn't always been easy. No wonder that, occasionally, while listening to time-sensitive music, I am thrown back into my formative, retro teen years, and feel entirely comfortable and happy there, free of judgment or complaint from those who do not know me, or care to know me.


Cultural cues and clues, the contexts and references of a particular generation, are impenetrable enclosed spaces. Forgive me if I am outside your box. Dare I admit, for example, that in this #metoo era I enjoy strange men holding a door open for me? Would I ever have admitted to this even five years ago as I am here today? And even if I admit it, will it make a difference to me or others? Will I be shunned, ignored, pilloried, canceled? Possibly.


Which brings me to my mechanic, Billie, and his wife, Rose. They are the co-owners of Franz Auto in town and keep our old buggy going. The mechanics in the shop are all men, sweet to the bone, they check my tires once a month, and I enjoy chatting to them—chatting, not flirting, or maybe flirting just a bit. Do women still flirt, I wonder? I was in before Christmas, brought Rose a Poinsettia for her desk and cookies for the guys. And though I do wonder why there are no women mechanics around—gay, straight, binary, or trans—I enjoy the gallantry of the mechanics checking my tires, and their stories.


Can't we be old-fashioned and progressive all at the same time so long as our old-fashioned habits do not hurt? Because as I was standing there chatting to Rose, and she was struggling to put a new battery into my electronic key, someone—a man—walked  in and said, "Hey, Good Lookin," by way of greeting. That dated line, circa Cole Porter 1943, and re-mastered (masculine word) by country singer Hank Williams in 1951, was meant for her, not for me, of course. Rose didn't flinch. She took it as an affectionate compliment, an entry into conversation, one she might have made herself in our emancipated 21st century. To whit, she was not offended, it seems, as she launched right into a warm conversation which was, dare I say it, heartwarming.







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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 84

'Tis the season of lights. Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2021

What Xmas Means to Me This Year


Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

 -Marie Curie


Time can be wiser than our own intentions.

       -Han Ong, "The Monkey Who Speaks"



Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and Zen priest, runs the Harvard Happiness Study. He recommends that we declare a "best day in advance" each week. My day this week was today, which I declared as I drifted off to sleep last night. I knew I'd be up early to make it to the pool by its 8:30 opening, and it's easy for me to be happy as I am swimming laps. A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but the morning was rainy, snowy and bleak, so a declared day of happiness was a very good idea.


LOL, I met a cheerful woman in the locker room whose bathing suit had stretched out as much as mine. "Is your replacement suit languishing in a container as well?" I asked. And we both laughed, like the masked bandits we have become.


Oh, Happy Days!  On the way home, I stopped at a small local grocery store to stock up on hummus, a staple in my vegetarian diet, and LOL there was none. "We've been rationed," the owner told me. "Shortages are hitting the small shopkeepers hard."


But it's Christmas, or the American version of Christmas, the season of lights. No presents this year, just cards and cookies to the essential workers in our lives. We want to thank them for their hard work, courage and kindness, these past difficult months. Top of the list is our local mechanic who has kept our old buggy going without ripping us off, our doctors and pharmacists, restaurant owners, and independent bookstores, to name just a few. And we've donated to organizations that are doing important, meaningful work: the International Rescue Committee, PEN America, Save the Children's Fund and Wikipedia.


Wishing you all a peaceful and safe holiday season. May all your rapid tests—if you can get them, or afford them—remain negative and bright:  #getboostered #gettested #maskup

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 83


At the Diner for Five Minutes



If I was a painter, and was to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?...I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam. for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it -' ...'And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!


Charles Dickens, "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit" 




Dear Reader, I exaggerate, it was more like fifteen minutes. I'd been looking for a respite from a busy bunch of days tending to everyone else in my life but myself. and I was in Poughkeepsie, NY, waiting for my husband to get his bionic lens eye implant, and knew there was a very famous and formidable diner—the Palace Diner on Washington Street—where  I could eat, sip some tea, read and write. American diners date back to the Depression—cheap meals open 24-7—this one is faux Deco, built in 1981, with a vaulted ceiling and lots of cheerful stainless steel. I'd heard the menu was two inches thick, the servers friendly, the salad offerings fresh. I had two hours, plenty of time to relax and sink into my own thoughts. I'd even brought a notebook to scratch down ideas for a new nonfiction idea. But life pre-Covid is not to be retrieved just yet. None of the servers were masked and no one asked for any proof of vaccination. Well, this isn't the city, that I know. Mandates are looser: mask if you are not vaccinated, no proof of vaccination required. Though this disparity in mandate protocol may not seem like much, it is much, for me at least.


I asked for a booth "far away from everyone" which put me smack near the counter, the bustle of servers pulling plates from the kitchen hutch, and five steps away from the restroom. Paralyzed by my indecision—why didn't I leave right away?—I stayed and groused to myself:  It is stupid to sit here for two hours.


I decided to schmooze with my friendly neighborhood server, dressed impeccably faux 1950's, like a waitress out of the movie Grease. Did she have on a white apron? A little white hat? No, I don't think so.  Was she wearing a mask? No, I've already established that. "I bet you get a lot of people in here waiting for loved ones in ambulatory surgery and such," I said. "Yes I do," she said. "Hospitals and medical facilities all around," she confirmed. And, then, without even looking at the menu, I ordered a small salad and hot green tea. "Is that all you want?"she asked. I could hardly believe it myself.


The salad came to the table in two minutes. I ate it slowly, contemplating my next moves, then gathered my belongings and headed for the cash register where there were two signs stating—for  the record—that  the diner is cleaned regularly and thoroughly, and that everyone respects social distance. This sounded like Covid protocols from the spring of 2020, not the winter of 2021, a bit retro, like the diner itself.


So I left, disconsolate, because I really love pure Americana diners even though this one, like so many others throughout our Great Nation, is owned by a Greek-American—George T.—more of him soon—and surely has Greek fare on the menu.  So distracted was I by all the servers bustling about without masks, and the crowd of customers without masks, that I didn't take any time to locate the  souvlaki and spinach pie on the menu.


Now for the owner. I figured he had a story, a Covid story. How had he managed to stay open through the worst of the pandemic? Why, unlike most restaurants in New Paltz, was there no mask mandate for everyone? And those strange retro protocol signs at the cash register, what about them?


Next morning, I got George T. on the phone right away, but when I said I was a journalist, he asked me not to use his last name. "I get so many strange calls," he said. I wasn't sure if he meant solicitations, or something else. It was something else: When he did try a mask mandate, some of his customers were not happy.


Not happy? I wondered how not happy, exactly? Threatening not happy? Intimidating not happy? Gun toting not happy?


He changed the subject before I could repeat my questions: "I even bought a robot to the tune of $20,000," he said.


"A robot?"


"Yes, to deliver food to the table. I'll show it to you next time you come in. And, of course, we kept up with take out. Lots of take out."


The next time I come in? That gave me pause.


"Tell me you got your booster, George."


"Yes, I got my booster," he said as he chuckled. A fast talker, I knew right away he was a transplanted city person, like me.


"Yes, okay. I'll be in on the 21st, my husband's second cataract surgery. Will that work for you?"


"Great, I'll show you the robot."


"In my calendar. But I'll be wearing a mask," I said.


Dickens would have loved this conversation. He wrote his sixth novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, after his 1842 visit to America. He was mostly disgusted—not  disconsolate, but disgusted—that the business of America is always business; only the loudest and most aggressive customers are right.

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My Mother's Madeleine



My Mother's Madeleine



And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.


-Marcel Proust



I've been discussing madeleines with my students this week, the surge of memory that surprises, confounds and then inspires writers and artists when our senses are stirred in some way, often unexpectedly. I have missed the surfacing of such a palpable muse during the months of isolation, and feared that this particular connection to the physical world had fled. Like so many of us, I had been holding my breath, and once vaccinated, was able to exhale, more or less. I finished a short story last week and have returned to reading fiction; I'd only read nonfiction during the worst of times, and developed the dedicated blog, Virus Without Borders, which is already 70,000 words.


More than one of my students has been touched by Covid; Ed Koenig lost his partner. That loss, itself, became a muse. He's written a beautiful eulogy, published @ whowelost.org . 


Sadly, our writing strengthens as we grieve.


Last night, during the advanced (still on Zoom) workshop class I teach once a month, Eric Stotter showed us a clay ashtray he'd made when he was five-years-old; he found it among his mother's belongings after her death. Holding it in his hand again brought back a childhood memory of traveling with her on the New York subway for art classes at MOMA. The essay he submitted was stirred by this memory.


My mother was not a writer, though she was an avid reader in three languages. If she hadn't studied medicine, she probably would have  become an art historian, curator, or professor. The man she eventually married, my doctor father, became an art collector and drew very well. Their living spaces—together and then apart—were artfully designed, paintings on every wall, sculptures, all purchased many years after arrival in the United States.


Like so many refugees, immigrants and asylees, my mother had arrived without many possessions or mementos, except for a few photographs, an embroidered tablecloth and, oddly, a silver soup ladle which my grandmother probably thought was valuable and stuffed into my mother's suitcase. Also hidden in the pocket of her coat as she fled from Vienna to Paris: a small, round enameled "candy" box etched with an Italian Renaissance artist's image of puttis, chubby male toddler cupids. My mother loved infants and toddlers (she delivered babies) and she loved this box; it was her madeleine. Angels descended to calm her tormented spirit whenever she held it in her hand. She filled the box with M&M's for her guests and kept it on the coffee table throughout my childhood. Thankfully, I still have it.


This blog post is dedicated to all my students. They have persevered during the pandemic and shown up for each other-- critiquing work, writing drafts, generating new stories, revising, attending workshop classes remotely. They have kept me grounded and hopeful.

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