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Fear and Loathing

The underside of the wee brown bat we massacred on 4/23/24. RIP.


We can't stop here, this is bat country.


-Hunter J Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


Do all men kill the things they do not love?


William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice





The credentialed journalists in the courtroom were writing furiously with pen and paper. Clearly, they hadn't lost the skill.  But it seemed quaint nonetheless, and telling in its retro ordinariness. The basic tools of reporting were engaged: listen, record, remain skeptical. But once in the studio these scribes let it rip with gleeful analysis and sounded almost righteous at times. Who could blame them? Who can blame any of us? We're all wrung out, waiting for the day that the man who has created such havoc in our body politic is taken away in shackles. Back in the 18th century, not that long ago in many respects, he would have been hung or drawn and quartered. Now, we are "civilized," evolved, and the rule of law presses on, albeit slow as molasses.


Then there is the fear factor.  A journalist on MSNBC and a juror or two expressed dismay at feeling uneasy. Let us applaud their courage and, yes, thank them for their service.


And I wasn't even planning to write about this today. Not at all. I was thinking of something else entirely: a bat in our apartment. The day had already been permeated with fear and loathing in the courtroom, in the Middle East, on the college campuses, and as we sat down to relax in front of the last episode of Astrid,  a delightful French detective series on Netflix, I spotted a strange swiftly moving black shape scurry into my office from the living room. It looked like a tarantula and I shrieked, a damsel in distress, my husband the knight in shining armor as he wielded a broom and I held my phone's flashlight aloft in the closet. Yikes! What was that? How did it get in here? Will it harm us?


We attacked it ruthlessly.


Then it was over. The creature was dead. We scooped it up and put it into a plastic bag without touching it. "I think it's a bat," my nature-savvy husband said. We looked up "bats," we read the word "rabies," got more freaked out. And then, remorse. We wanted to apologize to the endangered creature we had killed, a wee brown bat, so essential to our ecosystem. And the more existential question:  Why do we so mindlessly kill what we fear?


Self-preservation and survival is a reflex action when we are attacked or threatened unexpectedly, our sense of safety shattered, that's a given.  But why respond with obliterating force when such force is not necessary. The metaphor is obvious, I am sure. Do I have to spell it out? What would happen if we resisted animal instinct and gazed at the life form that has become our—real or imagined—enemy, in all its nakedness and vulnerability? Dear reader, can you answer this question?


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The Fight to Vote



In 1964, the Ku Klux Klan murdered Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner while working to register Black American voters during Mississippi's Freedom Summer. Their bodies were found 44 days later buried in an earthen dam; it took 41 years to bring the main perpetrator, Edgar Ray Killen, to justice. Their deaths were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, catalyzing the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


--from the press releases of the Andrew Goodman Foundation and

NY State Senate Resolution 2157




My Walden School alumni email chain was busy this week with news of a resolution that has been passed in the New York State Senate to honor Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner 60 years after their murder. Walden was a small, progressive school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one class per grade, the students moving up together K-12, and families interconnected personally and politically. I got there in the 11th grade after I'd been beaten up by a gang of girls in a public school and my refugee parents, in desperation, and knowing little of the city private school landscape, secured me a scholarship. I was two years younger than everyone, felt undereducated and lost, but also inspired by exceptional teachers and the kinetic activist culture of the school.


Walden remained a close community until the school merged with New Lincoln in 1988. Andrew Goodman's murder was a communal galvanizing tragedy, as it still is today. Many of my classmates knew the Goodman family; I did not. And when news arrived of the resolution, the email chain got hot. I was mostly touched by a few shared reminisces. A future historian may appreciate these stories, and make good use of them.


With everyone's permission, I'll share three memories that appeared on the email chain here:


From Judy (Fischman) Johnson:


Note: Andy is Andrew Goodman, Carolyn and Bobby are his parents, David and Johnny his brothers, Bernie is Judy's father, a well known attorney, and Mickey is Michael Schwerner.



 I often think of Andy. June 21-August 4. My parents, brother, and I spent every evening at Carolyn and Bobby's apartment with many family friends holding a vigil. On the evening of August 4th, someone had given Carolyn and Bobby tickets to the NY Philharmonic and insisted that they go. I don't remember where Johnny was, but David was home alone. The phone rang. David answered. It was Lyndon Johnson. He told David that the bodies had been found. David called my father. Bernie said that he would go to Lincoln Center and get Carolyn and Bobby. 


When Bernie got to Philharmonic Hall, he found the house manager and explained the situation. The manager let my father into the Hall while the concert was in progress. As my father searched one of the aisles, a scream rang out. Carolyn recognized Bernie's physique and knew there was only one reason why he was there. 


When Andy went to Mississippi, he was required to fill in a bail bond card with a contact person. My father was his contact. My family was also close to the Schwerners. They had been friends for over 20 years. When Mickey Schwerner was deciding who to take with him on that fateful night, my father was convinced that Mickey chose Andy because he saw Bernie's name on his bail bond card. Mickey would be riding with a young man who also knew Bernie. They had a friend in common. 


My father was also a point person arranging the payoff to the informant. I wish I remembered more about that. I only remember that he told me he was involved in the payoff. There was also a payment to a psychic who predicted that the boys' bodies would be found in a ditch. 


From Jane (Nisselson) Assimakopoulos:


I was pretty close to Andy in school. We used to have play dates after class and play with his electric trains; then we were camp-mates for a few summers at Camp Regis in the Adirondacks, and even boyfriend and girlfriend when we were too young for that to mean much. In my senior year (his junior year) at Walden I coached him for learning his lines, in French, for a production of Sartre's Les Mains Sales, and the last time I saw him was the summer after our freshman year in college when he and Carolyn drove out to my mom's place in Poundridge, NY and we talked mostly about his interest in theater and his budding actor aspirations. Then, the summer after my senior year, I was in Boston doing a make-up course at BU so I could get enough credits to graduate and go off to Greece. I spent that summer glued to the radio every afternoon until I finally learned, from my mother, not the radio, that Andy had been found. I missed the funeral because my class was not quite over, but mom and I drove to Carolyn's summer place somewhere in Westchester, I think, so I could see her before I left. I remember her  hugging me in pain and in desperation as if I was the last thing left to her of Andy. I wrote her and Bobby a long letter from Greece in which I talked about my own feelings of loss and how Andy's death was a piece of my own future forever cut off.

From Gabrielle (Schupf) Spiegel:


It is hard to think it has been 60 years. I still consider the worst day of my life the day I sat with Carolyn at her house waiting for them to bring Andy's body back.



I don't recall much of what we said, other than the fact that we talked about him as a wonderful classmate and good and brave friend dedicated to improving  society by promoting civil rights, the right to vote and other rights, for which he was killed. As I recall his father was especially upset—to  the extent that it was even possible to be more upset than Carolyn—perhaps  because he had not been in favor of Andy participating in the mission to the South to begin with.






Source: NY State Senate Resolution 2157 and  the Andrew Goodman Foundation



The family members of the three murdered young people who risked their lives that summer continue to be an inspiration. Andrew's brother, and Stephen Schwerner, Michael's brother, continued the fight for civil rights in the decades that followed. David and his family created the Andrew Goodman Foundation that supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility, and social justice initiatives in campuses across the country. Reverend Julia Chaney-Moss honors her brother's memory through continuing civil rights advocacy and through her ministry. Andrew Goodman was a student at Queens College at the time of his murder and Stephen A. Schwerner, Michael's brother, was director of counseling at Queens College for many years and chair of the academic senate. Queens College President Frank H. Wu is presenting President's Medals, the college's highest administrative honor, on Thursday, May 30, 2024, at the college's 100th Commencement to Julia Chaney-Moss, David Goodman, and Stephen A. Schwerner. 


To learn more visit    www.andrewgoodman.org



This post is dedicated to all the disenfranchised and reluctant voters in the United States.

May we all work tirelessly to register their vote.



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What in my life had ever prepared me for such a moment? Strong skepticism, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetry. And poetry, a great enthusiasm since I was a teenager, helped me through the reign of terror. The strength of the poetic images gave me solace during those hard days in Rwanda.


-Philippe Gaillard, "Surviving Genocide," in Another Day in Paradise; Frontline Stories From International Aid Workers




This week marks the 30th anniversary of the onset of the Rwandan genocide, a low-tech massacre of 800,000 men, women and children. Low-tech because the "tools" of the genocide were machetes and screwdrivers. No aerial bombardment, no tanks, no cell phones or GPS, just humans at their most bestial carrying weapons from village fields.


Rwanda is at peace today thanks to its National Unity and Reconciliation Commission which began its work in 2002. It was the most ambitious transitional justice process ever attempted until then. Nearly one-fifth of the surviving adult population testified before these courts, including some high-ranking officers who were eventually re-integrated into the new military. In 1999, an international court sentenced George Rutaganda, one of the most prominent leaders of the genocide, to life in prison. Across the nation, there has been accountability, testimony, even "reconciliation villages." Internationally there have been mea culpas for not stepping in to stop the genocide as it began; France and the US were well informed. But that is another long story.


Transitional justice, also known as truth and reconciliation, is a complex process, and a promising one, though what it might offer Israel and Palestine in their present iterations is questionable. The Rwandan tribal conflict took place within a nation-state, not between a nation-state and a terrorist organization intent on abolishing that nation-state. Once the killing fields of Gaza are cleared and rebuilt, the Jewish settlers on the West Bank are pushed back, and reformed Israeli and Palestinian governments are in place, a Palestinian state established, well maybe. But it's hard to say from the vantage of a still active brutal and brutalizing war zone what could happen. The future for now is in the conditional tense, certainly after so much collateral damage, the almost certain death of the remaining hostages, and the so-called mistaken targeting of the World Central Kitchen humanitarian convoy.


Rwanda remains a lesson. Its history is a reminder that it doesn't take much to kill, just a few tools: a history of racism and colonialism, incendiary language, fear, mob hysteria, the decimation of the rule of law, and simple or sophisticated weapons supplied by arms dealers, including the United States. Indeed, this beloved country of mine is so awash in arms manufacture, citizen-owned assault rifles, racial hatred and domestic divisiveness, that international students are becoming wary of studying here.


Every year, the International Committee of the Red Cross warns in its annual report that the human consequences of local wars and forced immigrations are becoming more and more serious. At any one time more than fifty conflicts are raging around the world and some 21 million people are being forced to leave their homes as a result; 17 million become refugees. Another 300 million people are affected by disasters unrelated to war, such as earthquakes, floods and famine. Always, children are most at risk, especially those under five, and their mothers who are trying to protect them. Of the remaining population in Gaza, how many women and children have survived? We know approximately how many are dead—but how many have survived to seed the next generation and work for peace? The sad procession of Gazans walking from south to north through the pulverized landscape they once called home will retain their near-death experiences in a collective memory for generations.



This post is dedicated to all humanitarian workers, past, present, and future in celebration of their altruism, and courage.


To learn more about transitional justice, watch this video: https://www.ictj.org/media/5424

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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Weather

Photo of the Ashokan Reservoir © Carol Bergman 2024



Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.


 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest



I called my friend Barbara who lives in Bath, UK, for a catch-up chat the other day, and without missing a beat we began to talk about the weather. It had been a sunny day after too much rain, she told me, and she'd been working in her allotment getting it ready for planting. When she circled back later in the afternoon to admire what she'd done and decided to dig a bit more, she cut her finger which was bleeding profusely as we were talking. But the weather was more important. "How has it been there? " she asked, meaning where I am in the Mid-Hudson Valley. "No blossoms as yet, grey and wet today, more like English weather," I said. And though, like everywhere else, even English weather is changing, chatting about it has remained a constant, for which I am grateful. It's the perfect lubricant and warm-up after a hiatus in communication, and it's safe: no domestic politics or Middle-East wars, for example. We need to feel safe with one another to get into all that, and there's a lot to get into these days. Even old friends and relations are cautious with one another, I find, in an effort not to harm, to remain respectful, and to maintain a friendship. Israel-Palestine has been particularly challenging for me. Thus am I thankful for the decade I spent in London learning how to sustain a conversation about the weather before embarking on in-depth "serious" conversation. It's a skill I still find useful before an interview with a stranger as my directness often pierces privacy too quickly. Warm-ups are essential.


But what happens when all we talk about is the weather, when the conversation remains insipid and shallow? When we surmise, or even know, that something remains unspoken, hidden, and inaccessible? When there's no there there as Gertrude Stein once said? What then? Do we continue talking, stop talking, walk away, ask even more confrontational questions to "get the story?" It's a hard call for a journalist, an easier one for a friend, I'd say.


Once upon a time, I was ghosting a memoir for a once-married celebrity and had found out that he'd had an affair with his assistant when he was still married. I'd been tasked with doing a lot of background reporting to develop the content for the book, and corroborated my findings before broaching the subject. The celebrity in question was shocked by my suggestion that the "episode," as he called it, when he finally began talking about it, should become a chapter in his book. "It will sell the book," I said. But he refused. I'd pierced his privacy, or was it secrecy—the line is thin—and he had crawled back into his shell. Next time we met for our interview session, I began our conversation with the weather.


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