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The Buck Stops Here

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.


-from the Bhagavad Gita as quoted by Robert Oppenheimer who turned 

to Hinduism after the first detonation of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos on July 16, 1945. He regretted ever after not walking away from the "experiment."


I had a conversation this week with John and Johnnie as they were emptying the  refuse dumpster into their massive truck.  All through the summer they'd been leaving a mess and I'd spotted a rat more than once rummaging in the odiferous scraps. Johnnie—spelled with an ie he told me—was the boss, a handsome Black guy with a white goatee and an outgoing persona; John was his slim, quiet much younger white sidekick. They pulled out the dumpster as I stood and watched. There was plenty of garbage underneath left from the last pick-up. "Any way you can clean up that mess?" I asked.


"We got you that new dumpster," Johnnie said, defensively, trying to save face maybe?


"Right, the animals were getting into the old one. The lid was bent. Thanks for replacing it. BTW I'm just a tenant here."


"But you reside here," emphasis on the reside, a preacher's intonation, trying to impress or just a bit flirtatious, fine with me at my age. But we both knew that my residency had nothing to do with the garbage John and Johnnie had been leaving behind. Slim John looked at me sweetly and pulled out a shovel. In two minutes the underside of the dumpster was spotless.


"Glad you've got a shovel on board. Much appreciate it, John," I said.


That's when I noticed the gold or gold plated medallion hanging on Johnnie's orange sweatshirt. I could see what it was but asked anyway.


"That's Jesus," Johnnie said. "You believe in Jesus?  You pray to Jesus? He's going to watch as the world ends and then maybe save us, if we believe, if we pray," he said.


"Or maybe it is for us to save ourselves, be good to each other, do the right thing, like you are doing today," I said.


But my conversation with Johnnie was not over. He was a performer,  par excellence. Slowly, he pulled his hands over his face and added narration: "Skin and bone melting, contorted bodies collapsing into the desert dust. Sound familiar?"


"The nuclear apocalypse," I said.


"Exactly," he said. "All predicted in the 'Book of Revelations.' God watches as we destroy ourselves."


"We do it to ourselves. I couldn't agree more," I said, relieved that we'd had what I'd read the diplomats call "a meeting of hearts and minds," however fleeting and imperfect. Then he invited me to his church to sing and pray—John  is a member too, he said.


"I'm a non-believer," I told him. "I don't believe that prayer will help stop war though I accept all blessings. Did you bless me?"


"Not yet," Johnnie said, "but I was planning to."


There wasn't any time to ask these guys if they were registered to vote, which is what I usually do with strangers I encounter, young people especially. Maybe Johnnie was old enough to make up his own mind and it was none of my business if he voted or not.  Or, maybe I dreaded the answer, so I just ended the conversation with, "A pleasure talking. Thanks for your hard work. Have a good rest of the day."


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The Persecuting Spirit


There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.


-Joseph Brodsky




We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!


― Arthur Miller, "The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts"


South Carolina English teacher Mary Rose Wood has gone through an ordeal that's sadly familiar to many high school teachers, college professors, librarians, and school administrators: she is being attacked for a book she assigned for her AP English class, for the stimulating open discussions she's facilitating in the classroom, and for her continuing, forceful insistence that her well-practiced pedagogy works; her students do well.


Ms. Wood teaches at Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina, a nearly all-white school. She assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a nonfiction book about the Black experience in the United States. 


After a complaint from a student, District officials ordered Ms. Woods to stop teaching Coates' book which has been the target of censorship campaigns across the country. In other words, along with hundreds of other books of note, Between the World and Me has been banned.


Transcripts from a Lexington-Richland 5 School Board meeting  obtained by a reporter reveal that school officials were worried that Ms. Wood's choice of Ta-Nehisi's book might be a violation of new state laws preventing schools from using state money to assign a book that might make students feel "discomfort, guilt, or anguish" because of their race. South Carolina is one of five states where book bans have been the most prevalent, alongside Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Utah. Chapin, South Carolina is in Lexington County which has a vocal, well organized Moms for Liberty chapter that has backed school board members among other officials. They recently published a "campaign package" for inexperienced moms who want to run for elected positions. 


Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his everlasting credit, traveled to South Carolina to  attend the School Board meeting, and sat next to Woods for support. Though neither of them spoke, their presence was a defiant presence. It is not clear if they were asked to speak, or refused to speak. Ms. Woods is still teaching the book and speaking openly to the press about the attempt at censoring her and the books she chooses to teach. Kudos to her! 


If this sad saga seems insane, it is. The attacks were angry and threatening, targeted at Ms. Wood's and Mr. Coates' personhood more than their professionalism. The targeting is very familiar to me: I was denounced and reported to administration by a student during my student teaching days in a gerrymandered school district in Oakland, California, and again more recently at New York University where I taught nonfiction writing for more than two decades.


I wasn't the only professor in the city, or the country, experiencing persecution by militant students on the left and the right in 2020 and 2021. I knew of at least two others—one at Columbia University, one at City University of New York. We all had been demonized by a student mob who reported on social media that we'd been misguided or culturally or gender insensitive, among other defaming slurs, then pilloried in front of a kangaroo –academic – tribunal, terminated and/or shunned by frightened colleagues. I was grateful, at least, that in higher education there are no angry parents to contend with, or young students complaining to their parents, or incited by their parents.


When did students acquire so much power? Where are the adults in the room? Why didn't the South Carolina Education Association(the South Carolina teachers' union, affiliated with the National Education Association) attend the school board meeting and advocate for Ms. Woods? Where was ACT-UAW, the NYU Adjunct's Union, when I was pilloried? Present but mostly silent.


Like every other American citizen, a professor employed by a university, or a teacher in a public school, has a right to due process, the right to face her accuser and defend herself, a right to be called to testify openly and without constraint. A school board meeting is not a HUAC meeting, it is not a Salem Witch Trial. Or is it?


For more information:






If you are local, please join me for a a Banned Book Club at the Gardiner Library. November and December will be virtual.


October 12: Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness
November 9: Art Spiegelman, Maus
December 14: George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue

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"The Devil's Inferno" © Peggy Weis with permission.


How do you separate yourself and your memories from History? How do you separate your presence from so many absences? Questions I can only ask, and never answer.


-Viet Thanh Nguyen, "A Man of Two Faces; A Memoir, a History; a Memorial"



It's been several years since I have written a memorial piece on 9/11, but I woke thinking of that day out of my sleep this morning. I had watched the 60 minutes segment on the firefighters last night and must have been thinking or dreaming about it. The images in my waking thoughts were silent, without sound, the hush of the city as the buildings collapsed forever seared in every 9/11 survivor's psyche.


I was still living in New York City that day. Our home was a co-op on the Upper East Side and  I was teaching at NYU and Gotham Writers Workshop. Our daughter, Chloe, was in her own apartment on the Upper West Side; she worked close to the World Trade Center. She was running in Central Park listening to the radio on her Walkman when she heard the news; thankfully, she had not yet boarded the subway. When she got home she called our landline, not yet an artifact. Patiently, she uttered three simple words: "Turn on the TV."  If memory serves—and memory after trauma weakens—that  was the last we heard from her until we established email contact. For some reason, email was still working, and I was grateful that the phone lines were up on the West Side of Manhattan so that Chloe could reach my mother to assure her we were all okay.


But that was us, our family, safe and sound in a city that had become a war zone, the enemy combatants dead in the debris of the Towers, suicide bombers from the other side of the world, a world none of us had ever visited, much less understood. What did it have to do with us? Americans I knew who cared about the world outside our borders, and America's role in that world, hypothesized instantly and endlessly about what this seminal horrific event signified and portended for the future.


But first things first, there were confused seniors in our building who required care, and workers who had arrived early in the morning and had no way home. The American Red Cross sent out a call for blood which somehow was conveyed throughout the city. My husband, Jim, has Type O, the universal donor, with a special enzyme which was badly needed. We pulled ourselves out of the apartment and headed to Second Avenue. It was only as we surfaced from our apartment building that we saw and smelled the billowing smoke and the stream of workers covered in ash escaping the site. We made it to the Red Cross, but were turned away. Few if any survivors had arrived in the emergency rooms. The Red Cross did not need blood.


Time collapses  in our memories. Maybe it was a week later, maybe two weeks when I joined the crowds walking the city in running shoes, stopping at makeshift paper memorials and "have you seen?" signs, writing poetry and attending readings, lighting candles for the dead. I started to immerse in the history of the Middle East, Islam, extremism and fundamentalism, imperialism and jingoism. All of that history is still relevant today—in the upheaval in Israel and Palestine, in Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the right wing surge in the United States.


The beginning of the term in that vivid, terrifying autumn of 9/11 was delayed, and when I got back into the classroom at Gotham Writers Workshop Irene and Phil Tufano were waiting for me. Phil was a firefighter who lost all his friends in one of the Towers. He wanted to write something about his experience, even though it was still so immediate and raw. And when I returned to NYU Professor Vasu Varadhan was waiting for me. She lost her son, Gopal, in one of the Towers, a loss she did not tell me about until months later when we started working together on her memoir, On My Own Terms; A Journey Between Two Worlds.


In the writing is the healing. the connection, the attempt at understanding, and the testimony for future generations.

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