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Spare Me

Spare Me



I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again...


― Philip Roth, "The Ghost Writer"


Late last night, as the snow began to fall in upstate New York, and I was about to retire for the night, Libby informed me that Prince Harry's memoir, Spare, was off hold and ready to be borrowed. That was fast, I thought, the publisher must have a released a lot of library e-book copies. No surprise as it was the fastest selling nonfiction book of all time on the day of its' release--across all platforms: hardback, e-book, and audiobook.


I lived in London for a decade and confess that the royals either fascinate, disturb or bore me. I knew I'd read or skim Harry's memoir—we all call him Harry now—but would not buy it. And it's good bedtime reading, not too demanding, and written in a breezy style by Harry's ghostwriter, JR Moehringer, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist (feature writing, LA Times), ghost of Andre Agassi's memoir, and author of his own memoir, The Tender Bar, now a movie with George Clooney, a friend of Prince Harry's. Clooney introduced Harry to his "literary midwife."


Celebrity literary midwifery is a particularly lucrative occupation. But the ghost has to agree to terms in a contract: Will their name be on the cover, in the acknowledgments (the first sentence), or absent entirely, and though it's disappointing to readers, at times, to discover a book has been ghosted by either one person or a team of persons --Michelle Obama's books for example-- a skillful ghostwriter captures the voice of the "writer" with ease. Still, it's best not to judge a ghosted memoir on its literary merits, though some are written better than others.


My own experience as a ghost writer goes back a ways. At first, it was just articles for Woman's World magazine, still extant, it's  a German-owned tabloid, that specializes in "as-told-to" stories by women. The women related their stories to me and I then wrote them in the first person, as though I was the person, a slightly creepy sensation. My byline appeared after the words "as told to."  I did quite a few of those stories and enjoyed meeting not-so-privileged women with heart-breaking and/or life-affirming stories. I had never written for a tabloid before and the women I met opened my eyes to a different, forgotten America, the America Trump galvanized in 2016.


Then, one day, I was called into a meeting with my agent, an editor at Doubleday, and Bob Keeshan's agent. Keeshan had  created a character for children's television called Captain Kangaroo, and his program was losing ratings to Sesame Street.  He wanted to stay in the game so his agent suggested he write his memoir. He didn't want to do it, so they decided to hire a ghost. I was the third writer they had approached, and the only woman. Keeshan liked women; he was gallant in an old-fashioned way, which amused me. We were comfortable with each other, and I got the job.


I thought it would be a breeze to work with him, but like so many celebs who are forced to write their memoirs for career reasons, he resisted. He didn't really want to tell his life story, or not just yet.  I remember stomping into his office one day and saying, "If you don't start telling me about your childhood and how you are raising your disabled son, this book will be remaindered in Barnes & Noble in a week."


He laughed and made a weird comment about what I was wearing, which made me laugh. Patience and a sense of humor are essential in this business, I thought to myself. I'm here to serve him, get the book written. He was deflecting, obviously, changing the subject. How did I find out about his son? "I'm a journalist," I reminded him. Still, it was a no-go, off limits, like the rest of his family.


Spare me the frustration of this process ever again on behalf of a celebrity, or mini-celebrity, or a celebrity who is aging out and wants to stay in the game and is eager to preserve and/or enhance his reputation, or is forced by failing ratings to write a book.


Most of Keeshan's staff had been stolen by Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, and when I interviewed them, they did not hold back their opinions or resentments about old-fashioned Bob Keeshan, or their delight at working with puppets who could talk about their emotions, recite the alphabet, and count!


Most painful for me was to provide transcripts, or reports, of all my interviews with every person who had ever worked for Bob Keeshan. He had a contractual right to hear all of it, and he wasn't happy, of course not; he was hurt. About half-way through that difficult year, he lost heart in the book, so much so that I had to pad it with scripts from a radio series he had done, as well as numerous testimonies he'd given to Congress –on racism in cartoons, among other subjects. He was a good guy, I kept telling myself, as I sat down to write a draft. I wrote the best book I could write, in the circumstances, and it even went into paperback, but was remaindered soon after.


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No End in Sight

Peter Zalmayev © photo copyright Alex Zakletsky 2023



  No End in Sight       


Anyone can be a barbarian; it requires a terrible effort to remain a civilized man.


-Leonard Woolf


Crucially, Putin seems not to care about casualties in his ranks.


-David Remnick, The New Yorker, 2/19/23




"The world came to Ukraine, and Ukraine became the World," Peter Zalmayev writes in an essay about the war for Meridian Czernowitz Magazine of International Literature. A  month into the war, his copy of The New Yorker arrived with a cover illustration of Zelensky holding up the blue-and-yellow flag. A political analyst based in Kyiv, and fluent in English, Peter quickly became a regular spokesperson on BBC and CNN International. In April 27, 2022, Hudson Valley One published a photo of him on its front page holding the "Russian Warship, Go Fuck Yourself" postage stamp accompanying an article by this reporter.


With the one-year anniversary of the war approaching, I caught up with Peter on Facebook Messenger as he was departing the Munich Security Conference and returning to Kyiv. We spoke on the eve of Biden's surprise visit to the capital, which bodes well for continuing support, despite naysayers in the US and the EU. Peter promised to read David Remnick's New Yorker interview (he's a subscriber!) with Russian scholar, Stephen Kotkin, and let me know his thoughts about a "golden bridge of retreat" still not being in sight after one grueling, tragic year of war. In that year, more than five million Ukrainians are in exile, the country faces a wrecked infrastructure, and an estimated 250,000 Ukrainians and Russians have been killed.


No writer can sum up the atrocities of this war perpetrated by Putin and his criminal cohort, so I will express my concern here by paying tribute to the fortitude of Peter Zalmayev and his friends, family and colleagues in Ukraine. They, among many, have been, and remain, stalwart freedom fighters, relinquishing the safety of the EU after attending the Munich conference to return to Kyiv—under  guard—to continue living and working through its continuing rolling blackouts, air raid sirens, air raid shelters, and loved ones still living far away. Recently, Peter's gym was destroyed by shock waves after a missile strike on a nearby building. The playground where his children used to play was destroyed some months ago. None of this wartime turmoil and destruction has eased.


 Peter traveled to Munich with his photographer friend, Alex Zakletsky, who took the haunting black and white photo of Peter in his pork pie hat. Peter looks weary and a bit older than when I last saw him; surely the constant stress takes its toll. Or maybe he's just travel weary. He is still an energetic interviewer in three languages—Russian, Ukrainian, and English. He grew up in Russian-speaking Donetsk, a major industrial city in the Eastern Donbas region of what was then-Soviet Ukraine, now under siege in Russia's offensive. In fact, as Peter always reminds me, Ukraine has been at war with the Russian Federation since they invaded in 2014, taking Crimea and occupying nearly the whole of the Donbas region.


I wonder how he rests and relaxes, and then I turn to his Facebook page. The answer is there in the photos of him chatting and drinking with friends after his broadcast of "This Week,"  his smile radiant, his laughter and determination palpable.  Looking back on the past year, he says, being in Ukraine during the early days of the conflict was like being part of a large, extended family, all united in their struggle. That feeling has not dissipated; if anything it has strengthened.


In addition to Peter's job as a broadcaster, he is also the Director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy and human rights in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.


The war in Ukraine, the resistance of its people, has inspired other decolonization efforts.  Leaders and activists of other national movements, including those from the North Caucasus, are discussing the prospects of independence from Russia following the end of the war with Ukraine. In a recent forum, a declaration was adopted which outlines the principles of self-determination. It states the need for direct dialogue between the European Union and NATO states with regional and national movements. 


This war, this awful war, is already exceptional in its intensity, threatening as it does all of Europe and beyond. In order to accept the necessity of pushing the Russians out of Crimea as well as the Donbas, it means we also have to accept that there may be no end in sight for a while, and that expensive, precision weaponry is required to thwart Putin's savagery.


If we consider the war in Ukraine to be a just, necessary war, as just and necessary as  the war against Hitler, it may be easier to support its continuation and resist the temptation of the "enough is enough" refrain, or worry about how much American aid to Ukraine is adding to our national debt.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About The Weather

The horizon after a wildfire on the Minnewaska Ridge. Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022





I read that plants can hear themselves being eaten…and that caterpillars remember being caterpillars. 

-Elizabeth Gabbert


I am here to say our house is on fire.

-Greta Thunberg



I had a conversation yesterday with my cousin Roger in Michigan. Between us we have four grown children, two of whom have made a rational, thought-provoking decision not to have children. Much as we would selfishly prefer to have a load of grandchildren to cuddle and spoil, there will be a limit to the next generation in our family. And though there also might be other extenuating circumstances in the decision not to procreate, and though it may feel, at first, as though it is against biology, it is a choice, a decision, tied in large part to the bleak prognosis about the future of Planet Earth.


By all accounts, this decision is trending in educated, affluent societies. What it will mean geo-politically and economically cannot as yet be determined. But much has already changed in the conversation, the words we use, the narrative history of the weather and weather forecasting. The weather is much more than the weather now: it is no longer an innocent conversation between two farmers searching the clouds for weather patterns or the arrival of  locust swarms. The moon landing changed everything and satellites have changed everything; we can see from above what we have wrought. Yet, despite all the predictive technology available, weather forecasters –who  should change their job description to climate change forecaster—cannot predict the extremity of the weather we are experiencing, they can only comment upon it as it is happening, and then ex post facto, which is like putting a bookmark into an overwritten nineteenth century novel so we don't lose our place. In other words, weather forecasters have become place holders.


Take for example the earthquake in Turkey and Syria this past week. The word used by the commentators is "devastating," but even that word is not strong enough to describe the calamity or the callous disregard of the autocratic governments in Ankara and Damascus.


One out of three people in the world is exposed to earthquakes, a number which has almost doubled in the past 40 years. A primitive seismograph was invented by a Chinese scholar in 132 CE, the tectonic plates by now well mapped, yet humans continue to live on top of earthquake zones and governments, such as Turkey's government, and China's government, continue to develop cheap housing on fault lines. The buildings there don't just shudder or sway when a quake hits, they collapse into dust. And if journalists try to expose these governments' corruption or malfeasance, into jail they go.


I remember well my first experience of an earthquake when I was living in California. A strong wind and the threat of a tidal wave sent us scurrying hither and thither. I was bringing a bag of laundry back to my apartment and a palm frond nearly landed on my head. Why, I thought, am I living in California on top of the San Andreas fault? Why? I knew the history: a "devastating" earthquake shattered life in San Francisco in 1906 after which architects began to design shatter-proof buildings. Despite the advanced building codes, the 1989 quake was also devastating; it took down the Bay Bridge. By then I had left the Bay Area, but looking back on that magnificent landscape, I do wonder why human settlement effloresced on top of that particular fault line and why it is still being "developed" by real estate moguls.


Most Californians I know, including my husband, are casual about the threat of yet another quake. Or, they are in denial. Indeed, I think we are all in a continuous state of denial about the challenges of life on Earth and what we would have to sacrifice—public and private arsenals, nationalism, privilege, righteousness—to sustain life for future generations.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 100

In the beginning, before vaccines, wrapped up for a trip to the supermarket. Photo, ©copyright Jim Bergman 2020

And Now For Something Completely Different


There's no more work. We're destitute. I'm afraid I have no choice but to sell you all for scientific experiments.

-Monty Python


What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?

- Bertolt Brecht


On May 11, The Biden Administration will withdraw Covid Public Health Emergency Status, declared by President Trump in 2020. The directive from the White House reads, in part:


"To be clear, continuation of these emergency declarations until May 11 does not impose any restriction at all on individual conduct with regard to COVID-19. They do not impose mask mandates or vaccine mandates. They do not restrict school or business operations. They do not require the use of any medicines or tests in response to cases of COVID-19."


The virus has become endemic in the United States, its prevention and/or treatment routine, or so we are led to believe by our politicians, despite the fact there are still 500 deaths a day. The Covid virus remains a deadly virus. It has mutated, true, but not weakened enough to say that it will never threaten us again, or that we have reached the elusive herd immunity. Indeed, it is more transmissible, may still surprise us, and it is here to stay.


The callous disregard of our government, its imminent withdrawal of subsidies for vaccines, tests, boosters and viral medication for those uninsured—our poorest population—reminds me of the less-than-attentive lifeguard at my pool who turns his back to sweep the deck, or test the chlorine, or chat to a swimmer headed for the shower. I look up from my lane and realize: we're swimming laps at our own risk. If  I have a heart attack or swallow water and choke, there is no one competent or caring enough to save me.


It is the way it is, some say, an expression I loathe. Acceptance? We accept at our peril. Transcontinental travel and migration, the latter often related to unabated climate change, war or famine, is a recipe for a continuing Covid pandemic, or another viral pandemic, as yet unidentified, soon to surface.  By then the pharmaceutical companies, about to launch their $80 vaccine, will be even richer. Just a reminder that it is our tax dollars that paid for the development of these effective vaccines.


One million people have died in the global Covid pandemic. One million. Each one of them has a name, a family, a loved one. Worldwide, there are still 2.3 billion people unvaccinated against COVID  and 30 million uninsured people in the United States who will not have access to free vaccines, or tests, or viral treatments after May 11.


So here we are:  I have reached Chapter 100 of Virus Without Borders. There was a false ending to this story a while back—and then I decided to continue. But Chapter 100 and the President's announcement feels like an appropriate –though unsatisfactory—ending to this personal witnessing document.

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