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Why Writing is Like Cooking a Turkey

 I was listening to The NY Times Daily podcast about the stress we all feel when we decide to host Thanksgiving, when someone mentioned slathering the turkey with mayonnaise before putting it in the oven at a slow-cook 325 degrees.  So, that's what I did this Thanksgiving, to my credit, I have decided. Isn't it always risky to try something new in the kitchen for a person who does not consider herself a cook, or like to cook? I thought it was brave to prepare the Big Bird off-grid, so to speak, and to trust that the NY Times cooking team knows of what they speak. My husband argued for the trusty foil tent, but I dissuaded him. "Just mayonnaise," I said.


Because turkeys are an impossible Big Bird to get absolutely right—dark meat, light meat—it's best to surrender to imperfection, apparently. Well, I'd never heard this before, but I liked it; it took the pressure off. Usually, polite, grateful guests ooh and aah at the absolute perfection of the turkey. "The turkey's perfect," they say, which is only sometimes true and everyone knows it. I think guests are grateful that someone else is hosting the Thanksgiving extravaganza and/or they don't want to insult the host and/or they love the host very much.


8 a.m., the mayonnaise jar on the counter, and I was painting the skin of the 13-pounder with a basting brush. It was wonderfully relaxing. After shifting the turkey into the oven, I did not look at it again until more than three-hours later. I picked up my Canadian cousin from the station and we sat and chatted over cups of tea until the other guests arrived. All the last-minute brouhaha was yet to come, the stress of getting everything onto the table at once, but I pushed that anticipatory anxiety aside.


Full disclosure, I'm old enough to remember writing on a typewriter, and fortunate enough not to be intimidated by the blank page, nor am I a perfectionist by nature. But I know many professional writers who are, and before computers wastepaper baskets in newsrooms across the world, and writing dens across the world, were filled with crumpled up discarded pages. My husband could never get started until he worked his way past the first paragraph into the body of the article. When the computer arrived, it was a blessing, he said. Who knows anymore when a first draft ends and revision begins? But he still labors more than I do, worrying every word and sentence. And, no surprise, he follows recipes meticulously without improvisation.


Perhaps it's a matter of temperament or personality. The turkey we cook will turn out okay, or not okay, and the end result is not what is important, not entirely anyway. I've done my best, worked hard, made an offering to family and friends. They will forgive a bit of white meat dryness. What's done is done or over-done, unlike writing, which we can play with and revise ad infinitum.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 97

Time Can Be Wiser Than Our Own Intentions


He wasn't sure what to do. If he left the rock, it would only take a few minutes of desert air to dry his pool, and then all that would remain of him would be a small crucible of brown powder, a powder the wind would find and scatter.


-Scott Anderson, "Triage"



Ten days and my husband is out of isolation, testing negative, and I am out of quarantine, still testing negative. Three friends in my hood have been sick, and are better. Forget contact tracing, no point. And though the news about the boosters is not good, it is not bad either: I escaped this round entirely—having had Covid last January—and we are not in the hospital, and we are not dead, and neither are most of my family or friends. Yet, lest I forget, the partner of a friend died. A dear friend of my daughter and son-in-law died. Is that a good score?  Are we keeping score to make ourselves feel better as we crawl out of our foxholes?  Are we afflicted with foxhole syndrome: the guy in the foxhole is dead, shot through the head, but I'm okay, I'm alive.


Plus, let's be thankful for Paxlovid. My husband thanks you, certainly. And though the vaccines and boosters we have so far are working well enough, let us hope that the new Congress will not be so hopelessly gridlocked that they refuse to release money to develop a different preventive vaccine and/or nasal sprays. Note: Biden's visit to China. Make a list of what you imagine they talked about other than Taiwan and Ukraine. On the top of mine would be: continuing economic cooperation.


But what I want to return to today visa vie this Virus Without Borders document is not the US v. China; it's triage. Triage is a wall I hit every time I talk to someone about Covid protocols before a social interaction. So, what are your Covid protocols? I ask before such an interaction. The answers are varied: There are those who clearly state their intention of extra care and testing before Turkey Day, for example, and others who state categorically that they are moving around unmasked  and if they get Covid, it will surely be mild, more like a cold, therefore no protocols.


Answers have become predictable: they divide demographically. The vulnerable elders in the population are cautious, the youngsters, not just casual, but fatalistic without much concern for exposing those who are more vulnerable. This has been true for a while, I know, and I'm not sure what it ultimately signifies or portends. All I am sure of is that it seems an apt metaphor for America's entitled disregard of its aging and vulnerable populations.


I have no solution and I have no words of Thanksgiving, either, other than I hope yours is a healthy and joyous one, free of Covid. I'll sing Hallelujah when I can take down the His and Hers mask hooks by the door, and when a new vaccine is developed.

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International Education

International Students @ SUNY New Paltz with two of their ESL instructors, Aiko Pletch, on the right, and James Phillips, kneeling. Beth Vargas, the Executive Director of the program, is third from right in the back row. Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022


Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.


- Mark Twain, "The Innocents Abroad" 



You must be the change you want to see in the world.


-Mahatma Gandhi





Beth Vargas, the Executive Director of the Center for International Programs at SUNY New Paltz, was on her way to JFK to pick up some of the 80 new international students arriving from all over the world for the fall semester when she answered her cell phone. Like all the other directors of international programs at the Mid-Hudson Valley colleges I talked to for this blog post—Bard, Vassar, Marist and SUNY—she was excited, more than excited, she was thrilled. Her happiness exploded out of her phone. Overseas students are returning, if not in record numbers, at least they are returning. And American students are studying abroad again also. As a child of refugees, a journalist, and an educator who lived and worked abroad for a decade, I am thrilled, too. I know what it means to have the opportunity to see our own countries from afar, to assess its glories and fault lines with humility, and to engage in conversation and form friendships with people from all over the world.


According to Pew Research Center, the national Covid  2020-2021 academic year fall-off of overseas students was about 15%. Many were stuck here, unable to return home during the worst of the pandemic. The directors, without exception, continuously monitor conflicts, natural disasters, and opportunities for humanitarian assistance to their students and their families once they are here. Pandemic lockdown was no exception. The college becomes in loco parentis, deeply engaged in the well-being and future of their students. "We're a collegial bunch," says Jennifer Murray,  Dean of International Studies at Bard College. "We talk to each other all the time, and help each other if there is, for example, an immigration problem with a particular student." Beth Vargas at SUNY New Paltz contacted one of the school's donors, a retired teacher, who agreed to use some  scholarship funding to sustain the stranded students. Without any domestic students on campus, those that  had part-time jobs had no income.


In 2021, a third of international students in the US were from China. Whether their presence in such numbers will continue uninterrupted is questionable, given the tensions between China and the US, but SUNY New Paltz still has a double diploma bilingual program going with a teacher training university in Chong Qing. It began when China ended its one-child policy and the government realized they'd need more teachers. There are now about 30 Chinese students on the New Paltz campus, most of them living in dorms, and doing well. 


Bard College is hosting 37 displaced Afghan undergraduates this term, all evacuated from Kabul, and has committed to providing a full package to each student, including tuition (which is being waived) room & board, books, and a stipend. Thirty-seven more will arrive from the American University in Iraq where they have been studying since their evacuation from Kabul. The Afghans have the benefit of a P1 visa intended for students whose families worked or were associated with the American government. That enables them to work and eases them into permanent residency, if they wish it. Sixty students from Ukraine will also be arriving soon on the Bard campus, all on full scholarship.


Despite the transnational world we live in, a globalized economy, too many war zones, and a climate-struggling planet, borders are still difficult, if not impossible, to cross. Getting to the US for the average overseas student, not on humanitarian parole like the Afghan or  Ukrainian students, can be challenging. Requirements include: an interview at a local consulate, proof of ties to the home country, and proof of funds for support and tuition. And though questions must be answered under oath, there has been some fraud, though it is rare, which puts the student at risk of deportation.


Students on the more common F1 visa can only work on campus in low-paying jobs, and often don't have enough funds to sustain themselves. This story began when I recently discovered an overseas student living out of her car, which all the directors found shocking. All wanted to know who the student was, where s/he was going to school, and if they could help. Like American students, self-support while studying is difficult even with some available funding from home.


It is possible, however, to apply for "special situation" permission to work off campus with an F1 visa during the first two semesters, but the overseas student has to ask for it, which might cause personal and/or cultural discomfort.


After graduation, international students can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work in their field of study for one year or longer, if they are in a STEM field.  (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)


When asked why it is important to have a student abroad program, and overseas students studying here, the directors' answers were almost identical: cross-cultural enrichment, international understanding, and world peace. 


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And Where Did the Slaves Live?

The memorial bench by Craig Shankles on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. Like other towns and cities in the United States, New Paltz continues to deepen a discussion of its history and its monuments. A Black Cultural Center was recently inaugurated. 


Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery.


― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"



I was walking with a friend on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY when we came across a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn of one of the 18th century stone houses.


"How'd you like to live here?"  someone said behind the stone wall that divides the property from the street.


It was a guy wearing a baseball cap eager to get into conversation. My friend used to be a docent on this historic street and, as it happens, is married to a descendant of one of the thirteen French Huguenot families who settled here, displacing the Munsee Lenape natives, enslaving them, sickening them, or fighting with them. Like the Dutch and English before them, the French Huguenots enslaved Black labor to work in their houses and on the land. An African American burial ground, probably no more than a pit, sits nearby the house for sale, owned by the Huguenot Hasbrouck family. It went up for sale last June for more than a $1,000,000. In  an Albany Times Union article announcing the sale, there is no mention of slavery.


I stood back, curious how the conversation would unfold. I did not want to insert my opinions into the conversation. It was a Sunday, we were on a leisurely walk, trying to relax, and my friend is married to a Huguenot descendant, so it's tricky, though it shouldn't be.


The guy selling the house said he'd lived there for fifty-five years and he loved history so he was eager to find a buyer who also loved history. That got me to thinking about ethical obligations. What would I do if I'd lived in this house for fifty-five years, was a descendant of the enslaving settler family, and wanted or needed to sell it? Would I be concerned that if I mentioned the slave cellar, now a rec room, the value of the house would decrease? How would I proceed? 


A week or so later I went to an event sponsored by the local library's "inclusivity and diversity" committee. The library—the Elting Memorial Library—was built by a slave-owning Huguenot family. After the Civil War, Peter Elting had loaned money to a small Black community living on Pencil Hill Road. Emancipated, entrepreneurial, in search of work, they had built homes and also wanted their own church as the United Methodist Church in town was  segregated. Unable to repay the Elting loan, which was never forgiven, the community eventually disbanded and left New Paltz for Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, and points unknown. Their departure, probably by the turn of the 20th century at the latest, only begins to answer the question: Why are there no descendants of the slaves left in New Paltz? And why are there so few Black people living here today?  Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, Racial Covenants in land deeds, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Is the rumor of a terrorist fire-bombing of the Pencil Hill Road AME Zion church reported in a recent Kingston Daily Freeman article true? How do we approach these lacunas and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors?  How do we move forward? What kind of a town and nation do we want to live in?


Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a upheaval on the SUNY campus. Why were the Black students so upset about the names of Huguenot families on their dormitory complexes? What was going on? A lot. After a whole year of testimony, the dormitories were renamed, the beginnings of  reconciliation and reparation. Then the pandemic hit and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of Town Historian, Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds, unearthed a Poor House under the Ulster County Fair Grounds; she commissioned a statue to memorialize it. Who was living in that Poor House I wonder?


Hopefully, the library and Historic Huguenot Street itself will eventually honor the slave labor which contributed to the construction and wealth of the town with an acknowledgment before each program similar to a Land Acknowledgment:


It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we in the town of New Paltz and environs are learning, speaking and gathering on the land and in the houses built with the help of kidnapped enslaved labor. We pay honor and respect to the slaves who labored here and their descendants and we are committed to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.


I mentioned this idea to my friend, who quickly had his own "reparation" idea:  What if his family's educational fund was offered to descendants of New Paltz slaves—if they can be found?  That suggestion warmed my heart.


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They Don't Want to Govern, They Want to Rule

Once again, I cannot resist this extraordinary image of the desecrated American flag ©copyright Peggy Weis 2001.



Tang was baffled that foreigners might imagine that people of his generation were somehow unwise to the distortions of censorship. "Because we are in such a system, we are always asking ourselves whether we are brainwashed," he said. "We are always eager to get other information from different channels…but when you are in a so-called free system you never think about whether you are brainwashed."


-Tang Jie to Evan Osnos as quoted in his 2014 book about China, "Age of Ambition"



Before Covid, before Ukraine, before Trump, I had  Chinese students in my classroom at NYU. I miss their earnest effort to fit in, complete assignments in a new, challenging language, their fear of electronic surveillance on email submissions, and of one another. They always arrived in twos. No matter how much I assured them that the workshop was a safe space, they rarely felt totally comfortable. Nonetheless, I was pleased to have them in my classroom. Mostly, they were children of government officials or wealthy businessmen and women. Much as I wanted to keep track of them when they returned home, I lost track of all of them. They disappeared into that vast, fascinating country without so much as a goodbye whisper.


I believe with all my heart that we need to maintain an open communication with China and its upcoming generation. The reasons are obvious: an ancient civilization, China continues to become an economic and political world power. There isn't a corner of the world where their presence is not felt; their workers are everywhere, as is their influence. Understanding the importance of a global lingua franca, everyone in China studies English, everyone is aware of the power of the internet, of education, of buying and selling power, even of the art market, of world peace. Indeed, it is my firm hope and belief that they will be instrumental in ending the war in Ukraine. Note: the visit to China this week by the German foreign minister. I am certain it was not just about vaccines. Back channels keep the diplomats talking.


A friend from UC Berkeley, who traveled to China often before Trump to teach in Shanghai, fell in love with her students. They are not rote learners, as she had feared, but original thinkers, deep thinkers. They have learned how to survive in a system that straps them down, which takes courage, discipline and determination. The Chinese students I have known never took whatever freedoms and opportunities they had for granted. They worked hard, unsparingly hard. Evan Osnos was stunned by their ability to resist their government's efforts at control through propaganda emanating from an office building in central Beijing he dubbed "The Department." Its' propaganda brief is similar to many totalitarian regimes, past and present, and—let us not be righteous--to  Madison Avenue's manipulations. We are faced now with a population that swoons at the bombardments of fake news on cable and social media. What is this if not propaganda? The resistance to this barrage seems minimal; it's like a drug to an unthinking, poorly educated mob addicted to their own ignorance. Violence and mob rule are the natural outcome of such ignorance. We should not be surprised.


And now, in this election week, as we listen—or  try to shut out—the nonsense spouted by the right-wing white supremacist fascistic American politicians, repeating themselves ad nauseum, moving from one subject to another opportunistically, or according to the dictates of their spin doctors, we have to ask ourselves, do they really want to govern, or do they want to rule? And if the answer is the latter, what is next for all of us, and how shall we live happily ever after?


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