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Where There's Smoke


Where There's Smoke


  Adults keep saying: "We owe it to the young people to give them hope." But I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is."


-Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 25, 2019. 



The Nanopoch Fire started on August 27, probably by a lightning strike. As I write, it has consumed about 100 acres of the Minnewaska State Park, just twenty minutes from the valley where I live in New Paltz, NY. I woke at 5 a.m. to the scent of smoke and the apocalyptic sound of helicopters, had a quick breakfast, and took a ride to the New Paltz Fire Station to try to interview a volunteer firefighter or two, but they must have been resting, as were their three dinosaur-sized vehicles. I wanted to ask, "So what's it been like for you these past few days?"


It's been all hands on deck as Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced a unified command: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers, staff volunteers, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Ulster County Emergency Services, the New York State Police Aviation—the helicopters—and the the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and local volunteer fire departments. That's what it takes to contain a wildfire.


I got back into my car and drove down Route 151 South to a building where I used to live; it has a deck overlooking the ridge. And there I saw it: smoke covering the valley like an old, smelly blanket. Inhaling the particulates from smoke is almost as dangerous as the fire itself, especially to young or damaged lungs.


This is the third wildfire in New York State this summer, albeit the worst so far. Like Hurricanes, they are given names, which I suppose makes them memorable for scientific purposes. On August 14, the Wanoksink Fire in Harriman State Park was contained within 34 acres. It took three days to graduate to "patrol status," meaning the fire had been contained, and was in a state of "mop-up," the firefighters walking every inch on foot to make sure it was out. Firefighters, by the way, are well trained, and they are brave, though we probably don't need reminding after 9/11.


Summer, 2022 fire #2 was on August 21, in Wawarsing, now known as the Losees Hill Fire. Rangers, assisted by several volunteer fire departments, worked on bulldozer lines to contain the fire to 2.5 acres and they did that in just a few hours. That was a relatively easy one.


But here's the upshot: climate change is here. These fires are yet another warning in an accumulation of warnings—torrential rains, flash flooding and other extreme weather events. The tinder under our hiking feet this summer has been bone dry. Every time a cloud passed during August we hoped for a few drops of rain. It was never enough.


Maybe a trip to the moon would satisfy now that we've made a mess of things here. No wonder there's so much excitement at NASA. Forgive me, but I'm not going to watch the launch of the new rocket. I'll be thinking about Greta's dream for Planet Earth instead and what we can we do day to day, each and every one of us, to contribute to her effort. Here's a list. Please feel free to add to it in the comments:


1.    Compost. If you do not have a garden, find a pilot compost program. I live in an apartment complex—but I take my compost every couple of days to one of two communal compost piles. One is next to a communal garden, the other next to the Village Community Center Pollinator Garden.

2.    Do not ride when you can walk, or bike. Save on fossil fuel and if you can afford it, go electric or hybrid.  When you rent a car, ask if they have a hybrid or electric car.

3.    Recycle, Do not put recycle items into a plastic bag; it will get thrown as is into the dump. Eliminate plastic bags as much as you can. Wash out your garbage pails.

4.   Conserve water. Take shorter showers. There's a drought. Reservoirs are low. Water is not only needed for human--and animal and plant--survival, but to fight fires.


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The Surveillance State


The Surveillance State




And when they spy on us let them discover us loving.


-Alice Walker, "Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart"




this post is dedicated to Salman Rushdie

may he continue to heal well

and write freely



I haven't written about Facebook in a long time. I was skeptical when it first began in 2004 and reluctant to put my face, my photos, my life on a platform for others to approve, mock, congratulate, pity, cheer or emoji, which was Zuckerberg's original intention when he and his cohorts designed the site when they were at Harvard. There was actually a competition: which face is uglier? A schoolboys' game, and a macho one at that.


Like nearly everyone else I know, however, I succumbed to the promise and temptation of instantaneous interconnectivity. Now there is Instagram (owned by Facebook) and What's App (owned by Facebook) and Twitter (not owned by Facebook or Elon Musk, as yet.)


As a professor, small business owner, journalist, and private writing mentor, I understood quickly that it would be a good idea to have an internet footprint. My NYU students always confessed that they had Googled me. Fortunately, I passed muster; my classes were always filled. And it has also been thrilling and life-affirming to communicate with people all over the world. Al Gore was prescient: there is an internet highway, but life has changed politically and geopolitically since he was Vice-President: Arab springs, wars, fires and floods, migrants, famine, domestic terrorism, autocracy on our shores, surveillance. And it is surveillance, or what I hypothesize is surveillance, that I want to talk about here today, though the discussion requires a preamble, or set-up. It will be as honest and transparent as I can write it.


I am a secular Jew, a descendant of the Holocaust, a genocide that wiped out nearly all of my family. I have rarely been to synagogue, do not believe in a God or gods, enjoy biblical stories as literature, the Quaran and the Talmud as ancient wisdom, some of which is relevant today, some of which is not. I have lived abroad, have friends and colleagues of all faiths and nationalities. I steer clear of ghettos—physical, intellectual, cultural. Though I have read deeply about the British mandate in Palestine and the historical necessity of a safe haven for persecuted Jews, including my own family who escaped to three continents, I abhor the idea of a one-party or one-religion state and all fundamentalisms, including American constitutional fundamentalism. I have both Israeli cousins and friends and displaced Palestinian cousins and friends. I love them all. If I could pray for peace, I would pray for peace. But I don't pray. I just do my best as a writer to pay attention and write from the heart.


So, when a dear Palestinian friend, who has American citizenship, and is therefore Palestinian-American, recently returned from a family wedding on the West Bank, and put up a Facebook post about Israel's shut-down of Palestinian human rights organizations, and yet more horrific bombings in Israel and Gaza, I wrote a comment on his post which began with the unedited and unskillful sentence: "The Israelis are fools." I then continued with more context, something akin to: if they only understood that Palestinian human rights organizations are their allies in the struggle for peace. That is a paraphrase from memory because I cannot retrieve my comment: Facebook erased it claiming it did not meet their "community standards." When I looked up those standards, I intuited that calling Israelis fools, instead of foolish, was tagged by their data sleuths as hate speech. When I appealed their decision, I lost the appeal. If I did not accept their final decision, I was informed that they would shut down my account. And though I let it be, I'm still thinking about it, thus this blog post.


The Palestinian-American friend who had just returned from a wedding in Hebron was stalked by the FBI after 9/11, as was his son who was in high school in New York City at the time, as was his wife who is a well-known Israeli-Arab-American university professor. The family eventually hired a lawyer to get the FBI to cease and desist. But it's not over until it's over. And though some surveillance is still undoubtedly necessary—more  importantly to stop  domestic terrorism than international terrorism these days, I'd say—the fact that I am communicating often with Palestinians and a (Jewish) UK friend  who is involved in the peace movement, puts Facebook posts and comments at risk.


So, where is Facebook in this story exactly?  By all accounts, the company is not doing well. Am I being paranoid, or are they turning over data to burnish their failing reputation? Just today, this news from Nebraska:  A teenager there is facing criminal charges for having an abortion. When local law enforcement officials suspected the teenager and her mother of acquiring abortion pills, they served Facebook with a search warrant for the teen's private Facebook messages. Then, once Facebook handed over the messages, they used the communication between the teen and her mother as proof that an abortion had taken place.


I'll end with this thought: Facebook is not our friend.

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Stand With Salman





He was learning that to win a fight like this, it was not enough to know what one was fighting against. That was easy. He was fighting against the view that people could be killed for their ideas, and against the ability of any religion to place a limiting point on thought. But he needed, now, to be clear of what he was fighting for. Freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art of which he was privileged to be a practitioner. Also skepticism, irreverence, doubt, satire, comedy, and unholy glee. He would never again flinch from the defense of these things. - 


-Salman Rushdie, "Joseph Anton; A Memoir"



My first thought was, they finally got him, because "they," whoever they are in any moment in historical time, often do. My second thought: the rest of his life will be inside a security bubble and he will either be accepting of this, or miserable about it, depending on his gratitude at simply being alive. And he will keep on writing.


I was back in the United States when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie began and he went into hiding. His marriage ended; he kept on writing. He has never stopped writing. Our paths had crossed in London at various times as I was a journalist there. Then I saw him again in New York at Cooper Union during the international literary festival when he was President of PEN America. He was feeling more at ease, his security not as tight, he had a new woman in his life. By taking on the presidency, he honored that august organization's mission and its support when he was in hiding. Founded in 1922, PEN America, one of 100 centers worldwide that make up PEN  International, is both a literary and human rights organization dedicated to protecting free expression in the United States and worldwide.


Given what is going on in Iran right now, it is no surprise that the death threat, known as a fatwa, has been "renewed," so it's perplexing that a so-called enlightened institution—the  Chautauqua Institution in western New York where Rushdie was scheduled to speak—had  such lax security, and that Rushdie's own security detail was so slight, or, by some accounts, non-existent.


Over the years, I have had death threats because of something I wrote, and though I have never had to go into hiding, I have required police protection. Citizens who go about their daily lives and depend on the press for information are usually not aware of the risks that journalists sometimes take to gather news, or novelists take to create their stories.


I invite my readers to #StandWithRushdie by reading one of his eleven novels, or his memoir, if you haven't already done so. They are not beach reads, but they will open your minds and hearts to other worlds and ideas, which is what most writers attempt to do every day of their working lives.


#standwithSalman  #civildiscourse #protectpersecutedsriters #opensociety #protectfreespeech 


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Interviewing a Politician



Interviewing a Politician



It's official. Lincoln's party of "liberty and Union" is now Trump's party of violence and disunion. His cultists just called sedition 'beating up cops' and a coup 'legitimate political discourse.'


Jamie Raskin in a Tweet, 2/2/22


I hadn't ever interviewed an American politician so I don't know what possessed me to interview Pat Ryan for HV 1, a local weekly newspaper I've been contributing to lately. I should have known the paper would probably only take a conventional, reportorial profile, nothing too personal or irreverent, but I carried on anyway and ended up writing two pieces, one irreverent, one informational. The editors conducted a straw poll: one editor liked  the irreverent take, two others the more informative version. The latter one is on the front page of the paper today as I write this blog.  So, I'll start this story somewhere between writing the reportorial, conventional piece, and aching to write something entirely different, which is what you are reading here. It's a meta story about Pat Ryan,  a hard-working 40-year-old Democrat, the Ulster County Executive since 2018, and an experienced, irreverent female journalist who arrived one hot summer day to interview him.  


Pat Ryan's accomplishments and policies are all notable, and most people I know in New Paltz—a  faux progressive town—really really want him to win. Maybe that was the beginning of my offer to interview him—I really really want Pat Ryan  to complete Congressman Antonio Delgado's term and get to Congress so he'll have the opportunity to run for re-election in November in one of the "new" districts. With all the mash-up redistricting, this is a good one. It's confusing and I won't say much more here other than we all need re-education to figure out the two ballots that will be in our folders, one for the special election (the 19th District), the other for the primary for the mid-term election (the 18th District), both on August 23rd, with some early voting beginning August 13th. Got that? Good.


A bit of backstory: In the ten years I lived in London I also contributed to a weekly, The Times Educational Supplement, a supplement of the London Times, and I did interview politicians, known there as Members of Parliament, who were so accessible that I hardly needed appointments to get an interview; I'd just walk into their constituency offices, and begin a conversation. I am sure it has not been as easy for journalists since Labour MP Jo Cox was killed by a white supremacist in 2016, and Sir David Amess, a Conservative MP, was murdered by an Islamic terrorist in 2021. Politicians everywhere these days live in a security bubble, not to mention January 6th and the fear of domestic terrorism in the halls of Congress. It is no surprise, therefore, that an unknown journalist would be carefully managed and not left alone in the room with a candidate. Nonetheless, I was surprised that after easily getting a slot for a 30-minute interview with Pat Ryan, I encountered a fortress level of security, all of which makes a politician much less available to constituents. And perhaps this is part of my story also because when I arrived at the Kingston, NY campaign headquarters, and entered the lobby, and walked up the stairs, the outer door was locked with a mega lock and I had to call to gain entry. And that was exactly what it felt like: gaining entry. I had to ask to use the bathroom so it was a while before the spirited ambience of a campaign office, with youthful workers on phones and computers, signs everywhere,  felt "normal."  Then Pat Ryan bounded into the hallway as I was exiting the bathroom, shook my hand, and said he'd be right with me. So, I already had a casual first impression I could use in my physical description: tall, lanky, relaxed, bearded.


I was escorted into a conference room where I could take off my mask and sit distanced, for which I was grateful.  Chris Walsh, Ryan's campaign manager, walked in, and made himself comfortable. Shorts, sandals, curly hair, he'd grown up in Greenwich Village, so we chit chatted about that. Then I thought he would leave, but he didn't. 


Once upon a time, I would never have conducted an interview with a PR or anyone else present, so I said, "Are you here to spin, Chris?" He laughed, said nothing, and stayed throughout the interview. Only later did I wonder, if he was armed and there to protect his candidate. Or, even more perversely, as I am female, whether he was there to protect his candidate from accusations of sexual harassment.


Anything can happen to a politician these days.


I'd done my homework, read everything that's been written about Pat Ryan most of which felt like potted campaign literature, and thought up a few questions no one had asked him before hoping to get under the skin of spin. For example, had he ever been out of the country before he was deployed after graduating from West Point?  No, he hadn't. And looking back at the United States from his vantage as a US Army Commanding Officer of an intelligence unit in Iraq, what did he see? "How much we have. How we have to preserve it," he said. I had asked the same question of Sheriff Figueroa, a Marine—running  unopposed for re-election  on the Democratic ticket in November. He  also had never been out of the country before he was deployed and  said almost the same thing. 


I had more challenging questions for Pat Ryan so I carried on. No one stopped me, a hopeful sign. He had done his Masters at Georgetown on drone warfare, euphemistically referred to as "leadership targeting," so I wanted to know what he thought about the CIA drone killing of Al-Qaeda's Ayman al Zawahiri last week in Kabul. I got the question in eventually, late in the interview. Answer: "Surgical kill, short term solution." And that was the end of the interview. Chris Walsh looked at his watch to end it; maybe he was there as a timekeeper. Next event, next interview and a visit that night (with security?) to the Ulster County Fair.


I had had my thirty minutes, a very short time to get to know someone. And, for the most part, didn't learn anything new about Pat Ryan; the conversation reaffirmed my intuition that he's a good guy, has had the requisite experience, and I want him to win. Before saying goodbye, almost at the door, I did try to get him to talk about education as he has two young boys and plans to send them to public school. I was thinking of the recent high intensity school board meetings and the sometimes fraught relationship between teachers and parents, but he didn't want to touch it. Instead, he veered into the pandemic and how it's taken its toll on all of us. He did call parents a "fierce force," though, and referred to his wife, Rebecca, as a "badass health policy wonk." She's worked as a civil servant in DC for a very long time. Maybe she'll run for office one day. If so, I'd  certainly try to interview her.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 95

More or Less


The president was not masked at public events he attended at the end of the week, which is in conflict with CDC guidance that says people should wear a mask for 10 days after a Covid infection.


                                        -Politico, 7/23/22



Dr. Anthony Fauci, still the Chief Medical Advisor to the President, segued from Trump to Biden smoothly, yet in an interview the other day he looked exhausted  and pained. Maybe I was reading in, but I don't think so. My sense was he was struggling to tout the party line on federal guidelines during the current surges (individual responsibility, more or less) and resisting the use of the word "mandate."  There is nothing any one man or politician can do to correct the systemically flawed "public" health initiatives in the United States, a nation where decision making is bi-furcated between the central government and the dis-united states. So let's give our public health officials a break for a minute—not including getting monkeypox under control—and concentrate on November's election, a Democratic sweep, and legislators who will be able to legislate. Meanwhile, I'll accept my individual responsibility vis-a-vis Covid.


Like Cuomo during the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci was our go-to guru. We watched him constantly for guidance and comfort, the news that vaccines were coming fast, that they would be protective—they still are, despite the variants—and that the simplest of measures, such as wearing a mask and distancing, would/could stop the spread. Then we got our government sponsored test kits (watch the expiration dates), testing sites and antivirals. All good news. But because of Trump's dangerous solipsistic insanity, both Cuomo (for all his faults) and Dr. Fauci, known affectionately simply as Fauci, became our governors, literally those that govern for the common good, our personal guides until we were more or less safe. I don't think either of them anticipated the more or less part of this sentence, but I don't want to minimize how they both got us through those early 2020 terrifying days and became our invited household guests during lockdown.


But more or less is where we still are during this third Covid summer. It's not nearly as scary as the first one, or the second one, thank goodness. We can relax a bit, certainly outside. Many people are risking travel, many people are socializing. I don't wear my mask at all in certain well-tested situations with people I trust, which feels nearly normal. And there are days when I forget we are still in the midst of the pandemic, which gives the vigilant worry brain a rest, wouldn't you agree, dear reader? I'll be inside working, say, and then take a run to the pool for a long, relaxed lap swim, two people to a lane this year, no reservation required. Once there I can chat mask free to the teens at the outdoor sign-in desk, some in high school, some in college, learn their names, their ambition, and ask how these past two years have been for them. Hard. Very hard. I try to encourage, support, solicit emails of their latest art projects or college application essays, offer to give them a read. They know I'm a  prof and a journalist and seem eager to talk to an adult who takes an interest. I easily oblige. Now that I can see their faces, and their smiles, we've formed a cohort, a community, of those who have survived, or are surviving—in  the continuous present tense—a  terrible ordeal, albeit only more or less over.


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