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Barbie is an Aryan Fraulein

Ruth Handler was a mature, intelligent businesswoman when she bought the rights to the  German "Lilli,' and transformed her into Barbie. 



I tried to straighten him out, but there is only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.


-David Sedaris



I don't know if Willa Paskin, Slate's TV critic and host of their Decoder Ring Podcast is Jewish, Christian, Muslim or a Jewish Buddhist, and I'm not sure it is even relevant, but it is niggling me, as the Brits would say. I was listening to her being interviewed  by Natalie Kitroeff on The Daily, New York Times podcast, about the history of the Barbie doll and its new blockbuster iteration. About two-thirds into the interview Paskin casually mentioned that Ruth Handler, co-owner of Mattel and developer of the Barbie franchise, was Jewish. The word "Jewish" fell gratuitously in the middle of the sentence like a prong on a fish. The prong never was extracted: there was no context, no backstory. Kitroeff let the moment pass without further questioning. She's the Central American, Mexican, and Caribbean NY Times Bureau Chief and relatively new as a host to the podcast. Maybe she's still learning, or just standing in for someone on vacation. The gratuitous labeling deserved a follow-up question, which never came. That's a shame because there is a significant connection between Barbie's origin story and Ruth Handler's origin story.


Handler was a child of Jewish-Polish immigrants, already the owner of Mattel, when she traveled with her husband to Switzerland, and discovered a beloved German sex-toy doll based on a comic-strip character, "Lilli," created by Reinhard Beuthien for the nationalist right-wing tabloid newspaper Bild in 1952. There were few if any Jews left in Germany to enjoy this buxom, blonde-haired Bavarian/Aryan masterpiece. But Handler was attracted to her three-dimensional realism, bought the rights, and transformed her into an oversexualized American ideal woman. Barbie's Aryan birthing, a smidgin beyond the Nazi era, was ignored, or forgotten.


The podcast interviewer's oversight--or disinterest-- in the story behind the story reminded me of a passage in Richard Ford's Sportswriter, the first in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The lonely and miserable protagonist parks his car at the train station during rush hour one evening and watches the crowd surging onto the platform. He comments on all the "Jewish lawyers" who commute to DC from New Jersey every day. Why not just "lawyers?" I wondered. Why "Jewish lawyers?" What is this? And is it the character talking, or Richard Ford talking? Why has Ford written this antisemitic trope into his character? Instantly, my stomach dropped, I lost my sympathy with poor old Frank, and then I lost my concentration. I'd had the same sensation of disgust and fear with Wharton's antisemitism, Hemingway's antisemitism, and Picasso's misogyny. For the record, I haven't stopped admiring all of them.


Ford is a still living writer so I wrote him a letter and sent it c/o his agent and his publisher.  I never got an answer, of course, but a few years later I saw him in a restaurant eating alone. I was having lunch with a sophisticated relief-worker friend who came from a similar background as Ford—WASP, Southern—and I told him about the letter I'd written. He suggested I introduce myself and mention my letter, and though I don't like to disturb well-known writers in public places, I got up from the comfortable banquette and walked over. As I managed to unfreeze my angry brain all I could say was, "I love your books," which is true. I walked away feeling defeated, hurt and cowardly. What had happened?  I have faced down antisemitism often in my writing life, and in person, too, but the encounter always sets my heart pounding.


My friend consoled me, we paid the bill, and left Ford to savor his solitary lunch.


A few years later Colson Whitehead took Ford on at a literary party. Whitehead had written a bad review of Ford's recent collection of short stories and Ford was so upset that he told Whitehead that he was just a kid and should "grow up." Ford then proceeded to spit at him. So, I thought, I was right about Ford; he's a racist and Colson Whitehead is a mensch. He made light of it, and even cracked a joke as Ford was seething. Ford was warned by friends to cool it, that he'd never live down what had happened that day—a white writer from Mississippi spitting at a Black literary star is a trope in itself. Indeed, the incident has become a literary cause célèbre. The time has passed to give even well-known literary racists, albeit brilliant writers, a pass.


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Are You a Bot?

A book of novellas by yours truly is fully copyright protected. If the AI companies want to scrape the text, they'll have to pay me a fee. The cover is © copyright Peggy Weis who would also require payment and credit.


Dialogue from 2001 Space Odyssey, 1968 (Based on a 1951 short story, "The Sentinel," by Arthur C. Clarke) :


Interviewer: HAL, despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out your actions?


HAL: Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.





Once upon a time, not that long ago, I would make a phone call to Verizon, say, or Spectrum, or any other company, and chat to a live person about a discrepancy in my bill, get it "sorted," as my British friends say, wish the person a good day, and breathe a sigh. But person-person contact is mostly over. This week it hit me hard, partially because of the strikes in Hollywood, more later. But also because I called Verizon, and received a link to a "chat on text" opportunity. Yes, dear reader, an opportunity. The entity—what else to call it—kept texting, as follows:


 "I understand."

 "Are you a live person?" I asked.

 "Yes, I am a live person."

 "If you are live person, why do you sound like a bot?"

"I understand."


This conversation was almost as entertaining as the one between HAL and Mission Control in 2001 Space Odyssey.


Artificial Intelligence. Now I get it. Sci Fi predicted this just as Cli Fi predicted our climate changed summer. But there is more : the theft/scraping of  copyrighted work, and the threat to the livelihood of writers, film-makers, artists and musicians. My husband is a long-standing member of the WGA, the strongest writers' union in the country, and I am a long-standing member of the Authors Guild and PEN America. In this household, we #standwiththeWGA in its strike action which, if successful or unsuccessful, will have a ripple effect on every creative professional in the years and decades to come.


Even if you do not share my union politics, dear reader, at the very least consider the toxic effects of dehumanization because this is what the abuse of AI implies, for all of us. However artistically rendered, AI generated characters, images, melodies, dialogue and chats are usually stilted and barren. Undoubtedly, the technology will improve, as it always does, more reason to stay ethically grounded and examine what it can and cannot do, and what it must not ever do. Just imagine a future where all humans begin to sound and act like bots until no one can tell the difference. 


My husband and I shifted our mobile carrier from Verizon to Spectrum. It was, primarily, a financial decision, but all-told, our local Spectrum office is friendlier. We spent more than two hours with Eric and Dionne, kind and patient people, who asked the computer questions about the process, which was complicated and arduous, albeit a mostly human endeavor. The machines surrounding us that day—screens and phones and WiFi routers—were tools, and nothing more.


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One Small Thing We Can Do

Shabazz Jackson upgrading the Reformed Church Community Garden compost pile. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2023


As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.

-Robin Wall Kimmerer, "Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants"



I encountered Shabazz Jackson at my favorite compost pile next to the Reformed Church Community Garden on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY where I have been casually dumping my scraps for about five years. In a volunteer partnership with the garden's Caring for Creation Committee, Shabazz is making use of their built infrastructure to educate the neighborhood and gather data on how much food waste households generate in Ulster County. His tools are a shovel, a wheelbarrow, an easy-to-construct ecology box—more later—and his degrees in economics, biology and chemistry. I took note of the logo on his truck—GREENWAY—watched him working for a while, then momentarily felt embarrassed by my innocent questioning when I realized this guy is an experienced professional and a teacher, well known in the county as "the compost guy."  Born in Beacon and raised at his grandfather's knee in a vast wilderness which has now been swallowed by Hudson Highlands Park, the dirt under Shabazz's fingernails is legacy. So, too, his business acumen. Knowing that as a Black family they'd never get a bank loan in 1960, the Jacksons pooled their money to buy the property and held onto it all through Shabazz's childhood, resisting Governor Rockefeller's offer to buy it for his planned donation to the state for the park. "We were sitting on the porch together the day a black limousine pulled up to the house and though I was only ten-years-old, my Grandpa sent me down the stairs to find out what "they" wanted."


"They want to buy the house," Shabazz reported.


"Tell them that if Governor Rockefeller comes here personally, I will sell it to him," his grandfather said.


Rockefeller never showed.


"Big story there," I said to Shabazz. "Time to write your memoir."


We were talking on the telephone on a rainy, flood threatening climate catastrophe Sunday. "You do not need to be re-educated, just re-trained," he assured me. "Those food scraps you have been dumping on an open pile are a health hazard. They attract flies, rats and bears."  And there is an essential intermediate step we have been missing—odor control, known as OCB. It's a mixture of food waste compost and kiln dried hardwood shavings designed by Shabazz and his business and life partner, Josephine Papagni, to absorb the moisture and the sulfur produced during decomposition. The result is Zero Waste, which should be everyone's household goal, whether we have gardens or use communal compost piles.  


No more dump and run, I thought to myself:


Step 1: Open the covered ground-level ecology box

Step 2: Dump food scraps out of my counter-top compost pail

Step 3: Cover the food scraps with odor control mixture from the pile next to the box

Step 4: Close the ecology box, walk away with my empty reusable compost pail

Step 5: Begin again


According to the International Zero Waste Alliance, whatever is re-cycled and does not go into the landfill will contribute to climate change harm reduction. The cumulative effect of each person's effort is worthwhile, however imperfect or minimal it may seem as we are doing it. Composting is one small effort; there are many others. (Check out the Zero Waste Hierarchy on the International Alliance's website: https://zwia.org/  )


Shabazz considers the Huguenot Street site a pilot education project and is eager for its users to take a (free) workshop. Give him a call @ 845 656- 6070 when you are in the Mid-Hudson Valley and he'll meet you wherever you are, or contact him on his website: https://www.greenwayny.com/home.html

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The Enduring Joy of Books

Cincinnati, 1928. Before local libraries, there were bookmobiles. 


Our father used to tell us stories about a bookworm named Wally. Wally, a squiggly little vermicule with a red baseball cap, didn't merely like books. He ate them.

-Anne Fadiman, "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader"



I thought I heard the young mother say, "Do you want a snack?" Her tattooed arms were loaded with books, her three children ranging in age from 6 to 13 or so, were restive, disobedient. Their mother was trying to distract them with promises of a snack, was that it? No, she'd said, "Do you want a smack?" I was a volunteer and decided to intervene, for the sake of the overwhelmed mom and the children. It was a rainy day, good for attendance the Gardiner Library Director, Nicole Lane, had told me when I arrived. She was right. The crowd was thick and included many children. And now this mom needed some help, so I helped by chatting up her adorable kids, and asking them lots of questions while their mom browsed more books. Hundreds were laid out neatly on tables in the community room for the annual book fair of the library, just down the road from me. I had taught a Haiku class there recently, admire the library's vitality as a community center and its devoted staff, and volunteered for a three-hour stint at the fair. Nicole instructed me on my responsibilities: straighten books on the tables, fill in spaces with boxed books under the tables, and answer questions, such as "Where are the children's books? Or "Where are the reference books?"


I tucked away my backpack and rain gear in a corner, thinking, well, I'll pile the books I want right here, then turned around and stood at attention for a few moments. Book lovers must have felt the vibe of my abiding interest in them and the books they had chosen. Many appeared in front of me like old friends continuing a conversation about the thrill of their finds. Men, women, small children, babies, all of them readers or readers in training. One dad had his baby in a sling and was bouncing her gently as he moved methodically from table to table. "That baby is already a reader," I said as I followed him. But he was too immersed in a book he'd picked up to answer me. Sometimes, when the din of the happy running around kids subsided, the room hushed in concentration and a palpable reverence.


I was a writer in a roomful of readers of all ages. I tried to pay attention to everyone's comments, so that I might be able to make use of them in my work, if that is possible. Is it possible?  Probably not, but I enjoyed the conversations and I conducted informal surveys: "Do you also read electronically?" Just about everyone does, it seems. As do I. But all agreed: somehow it's not the same. These beautiful recycling books, bound and tactile, are so inviting, I thought.


I spotted four books I had donated and decided I missed them too much, I would buy them back. Thou shall not covet, I said to myself. During a culling before my most recent move, I promised myself and my husband I would only keep books I thought I'd reread—eventually—or needed for a project. Nice try.


What is it about these sacred objects? Well, that's just it, they are sacred to me. As a writer I understand the effort it takes to create a book, to make it work on the page. When it works, I want to own it as inspiration.  I hope some readers feel the same about the words I have written. I suppose that is the goal in the end: to write something beyond the ephemeral that touches and engages the reader.


Twice during my three hour volunteer stint, a woman talked to me excitedly about the plot of a much-loved novel she had re-discovered amidst all the treasures.  I listened attentively. The plots weren't of great interest to me, but no matter. The  held physical book had become a bond between strangers, a talisman, one of many that found new homes that day.


If you are local, please join me for a banned book club  I will be facilitating at the Gardiner Library in the fall. The schedule will be announced in their newsletter.



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