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Duck and Cover; America's First Lockdown Drills

 Bert the Turtle



When danger threatened him, he never got hurt. He knew just what to do.


-Bert the Turtle



In 1950 Mayor William O'Dwyer announced a plan to protect New York City school children, not from active shooters, but from the atomic bomb. The plan—which continued for a decade—included the use of the basements of school buildings as air raid and/or fall-out shelters. Teachers handed out a booklet: "STAY CALM," it said in big red letters. And it showed a picture of a little boy and a little girl smiling and staying calm.


A year later, the Federal Civil Defense Administration released a cartoon, a record album, and a book featuring Bert the Turtle, who ducked as soon as he saw a "flash of light" and then covered his head and neck with his arms, against a wall, or under a table. At least once a week at noon, an air raid siren would go off. This was the signal for students to slide under their desks and "duck and cover."  Sometimes, there were  "sneak attack drills." "Drop," the teacher would say, and students had to drop under their desks.


Dog tags were given out in the second week of October each year. "Just in time for Halloween," our teacher said, cheerily. "You can dress up as soldiers." Modeled after military dog tags, they were made of a lightweight aluminum, stamped with each child's name, address and phone number. With their long chains, they dangled right down to our belly buttons.


What fun! In the event of a catastrophe, we could be easily identified, just like on a battlefield.


Or could we? Wouldn't the aluminum be incinerated?


I rushed home in a panic on those sneak attack drill days, which my parents, who were refugees, said reminded them of war. My mother, a psychiatrist, went to speak to the principal. "These drills are not good for the children," she said. "America is at peace. Let the children live in peace."


Like all parents everywhere, and throughout time, a committee was formed. A minister's wife, Mrs. W.H. Melish, mother of two, formed the Parents' Committee to Safeguard Children From War Tension in the School. "Dear Parent," she wrote in a letter circulated widely and subsequently published in the New York Times. "Were you shocked when your children came home and reported that they had A-bomb air raid drills? Is your child one of those who is waking up in terror because of these drills?"


The newspaper of record then went on to report Mrs. Melish's address in Brooklyn, insuring harassment by irate citizens. Some accused her of being a communist.


I am sure the principal was polite when my mother was escorted into her office, but her admonitions, based on her professional assessment, went unheeded. The nonsensical, pointless drills were mandated by the government, a government that had unleashed an atomic bomb on a civilian population—the first and only time so far—and  knew full well what it could do: evaporate us. No wonder so many suburban families were building bomb shelters in their back yards. Magical thinking, we'd say today.


These memories came back to me recently when Putin threatened the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Well, just tactical, the pundits reassure us. This is not another Cold War, it is something else, perhaps worse: a geopolitical realignment. More damage is being done to Ukraine by the continuous pummeling of infrastructure with "conventional" weapons, so why worry about nukes? But the missiles cannot see the children down there, and even if they did, what would it matter? The war continues regardless, with no end in sight.


Because so many Ukrainians have evacuated and are living in exile, it's easy to forget that many remain, including children, who are forced into air raid shelters when a siren sounds, often in the middle of the school day. They sing, or continue with their lessons, they move quietly in well-disciplined lines, and sometimes they cry, the reporters on the ground tell us. They may emerge from their shelters unscathed, or they may not, as in Mariupol. Or their wounds may remain invisible for years to come. Their fathers are mostly soldiers now and will return with their own wounds, or in body bags. Their mothers are sustaining life away from the front lines as best they can until they, too, have to take shelter.


Grown-ups usually have well-intentioned plans, but they can't always protect their children. Survival in a war zone is day-to-day. Even in schools in a safe-enough country, such as the United States, there is a war mentality. With lockdown drills and school shootings, our schools have become war zones. The absolute safety of our children during the school day is an illusion.


There was a fallout shelter where my friend Diane lived. A yellow and black radiation sign was tacked to the front of her building. One day we persuaded the building superintendent to let us see it. Though these shelters had been de-commissioned, many were still intact. This one contained: dark gray metal cans without labels, jars of peanut butter, dried fruit, jugs of spring water, tinned candies, tinned cigarettes, cots and blankets, candles, a table and chairs, a radio, a gasoline lantern, a gasoline stove and a large medicine kit filled with Band-Aids and iodine.


Diane wanted to stay and play, but I said no. I was scared. The shelter was a tomb.


"You kids," the superintendent said affectionately as he escorted us back upstairs. "Get outside into the sunshine. Jump rope or something."


So that's what we did.





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Playing It By Ear

New Paltz, NY  in Winter © copyright Carol Bergman 2023


Playing It By Ear


  But to tolerate uncertainty is to  become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.


Lydia Polgreen, NY Tines Opinion, 10/26/22



It's a strange idiom, one I rarely use—playing it by ear—but today, as I write, it is my birthday and I have been looking forward to driving up the mountain to have dinner with my daughter. She called last night when I was in the midst of a Zoom meeting. I excused myself and took the call; I always answer my daughter's calls. And we compared our weather apps. Snow is predicted on all of them, how much, whether the temperature will go up or down is all unpredictable, despite modern technology. Driving home would be all downhill, so best be cautious, we decided. We postponed our get-together until tomorrow after the dig out, plowing and sanding. But we'll still have to "play it by ear," just in case there's a shift in the wind, or the roads are still too slippery to travel.


That idiom—playing it by ear—has  stayed with me all morning.  I find it difficult to change plans and bob with the waves, to improvise, ad-lib or extemporize, which is strange because all writing—all  creative endeavor—is a form of improvisation. The page or canvas is blank, and we fill it with words or images that surface within us, often mysteriously.


I didn't know what I was going to write about this week, which is unusual for me, until my daughter said, "let's play it by ear." That set me to bobbing all day in the waves of life's exigencies.  I'm about to begin  another Young Adult novel, so I'm reading a lot and taking notes. I've written one page I think is viable, but I am not certain. And I'm slow-reading a biography of Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie, every sentence of which is fascinating and enjoyable to contemplate. The seeds of today's horrific war in Ukraine are in 17th century Russia. I will continue to write about that conflict until it ends, and we don't know how it will end. Uncertainty once again.


Slow-reading nonfiction big books began for me during lockdown. I'd always been a fast reader, goal-oriented, reading less for pleasure than information and as a writer studying what makes a book work, or not. But as life's activities suspended and there were more hours in each day to read, write, and think, I became more attentive to my eyes moving across the page, as though they were vehicles. The sensation of being transported into another time and place was almost surreal; it took me away from the sad reality of the pandemic. I have continued the practice. Massie's book is 800 pages, and it is the first of four in his Romanov series. Catherine the Great is already on the TBR stack.


Once a month I meet with what I have started calling my very special, advanced city writing workshop—Sherry, Ed, Betty Leigh, Eric and Max.  Much has transpired for all of us since we shifted to Zoom, and adapted to it, in the spring of 2020, including the tragic death from Covid of Ed's partner, Jody.  Yet, even after this terrible event, our get togethers remained focused, engaged, and supportive, full of warmth, humor, and improvised conversation. I dedicate this blog post to all of these particular, wonderful students, with gratitude.

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Owls for Peace

Barred Owl photo © copyright by Michael Gold 2023 with permission


Owls for Peace



The Lenape Indians believed that if they dreamt of an Owl it would become their guardian.


-The Owl Pages



The owl was sitting quietly on the branch of a tree as my photographer friend, Michael Gold, was on his way to the gym very early one morning. It was still deep winter, and cold, but he got out of his car and took pictures with his phone. Later that day, when he posted the image of the owl on his Facebook page, I unexpectedly felt both wonder and joy, a respite from the focus of most of my writing life. I hadn't read the paper yet, or listened to any podcasts. I didn't need any reports about whole towns destroyed in Ukraine, Syria and Turkey to know that whole towns had been destroyed in Ukraine, Syria and Turkey.


In our daily lives, we may not be at war, but we are not always wise, and we are very often unkind.  So eager are we for the restitution of warm connection since three years of masking and insurrection, that when a young man on line at the local bakery tells his girlfriend he loves her, everyone turns and smiles.


Often, then, if we are attentive, patient, perhaps too imaginative, something surprising happens that eases our worry: Polar bears are surviving, or there is a cease fire in Ukraine, or the end to a trade war with China, or release of a migrant from detention, or the demonstrations in Iran and Israel against despotic regimes succeed in toppling those regimes. Or, it could be something micro-cosmic, immediate and real: the moment love begins, the mountain air freshened by wind, or an owl sitting peacefully in a tree.


Dedicated to my Palestinian cousins, still living under an increasingly violent occupation, and the brave Israelis demonstrating against their government.

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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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The Force of Truth

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930

Detail of photo by Lawrence Beitler, Fair use image


The Force of Truth


I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

-Martin Luther King Jr. Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, Norway, 1964.


Walking on the rail trail in New Paltz, NY several days a week, I wondered if the town, post- Civil War, had been divided — east of the tracks and west of the tracks, rich and poor, emancipated slaves and White colonial settlers — as it still is in so many small towns across America. I also thought about Betsy, and wondered what happened to her.


Betsy and I met at the UC Berkeley housing office when the woman behind the desk introduced us to each other and said there was a furnished two-bedroom apartment available for a reasonable rent at 2441 Haste St. with its front windows overlooking Telegraph Avenue. Neither of us hesitated; we were both desperate to find affordable accommodation before the term started. We moved in later that day.


It wasn't until we sat down to a take-out dinner in our new apartment that we introduced ourselves properly. I had recently arrived from New York to make up some credits in summer school and decided to stay and finish my degree at UC Berkeley. Betsy had a more complex story. She'd been attending a school in Florida and returned from her junior year abroad pregnant with a biracial baby. There was no question of an abortion. Her parents were pro-life, stalwart members of a conservative church-going community. So they whisked Betsy out of town to a "home" where she gave the baby up for adoption.


"Where are you from exactly?" I asked.

"Muncie, Indiana," she replied, tears cascading down her cheeks.


In 1929, two married sociologists, the Lynds, published a study about Muncie. They renamed the town Middletown U.S.A. and completely ignored the Black population on the east side of town. The study was — excuse  the expression —a whitewash. Muncie was still de facto segregated when Betsy was growing up. It was also the headquarters of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan.


A year later, in 1930, three Black boys were lynched and then incinerated in the nearby town of Marion in front of a large crowd of onlookers. Like many other lynchings of that era, photographs of hanging and burning were sold as postcards.


The bodies of the two boys were retrieved by the pastor of the AME Zion Church in Muncie because there were no Black undertakers in Marion. The congregation gave them a Christian burial in Muncie.


This history of racial terrorism in Indiana, just a year after the publication of Middletown U.S.A., gave me pause.


I remember Betsy's mother coming to visit her daughter. She spent her entire visit sitting in our living room, refusing to venture outside because of what she called the "weird looking students" of all sizes, shapes and colors walking on Telegraph Avenue. I think she truly believed she'd landed in Sodom or Gomorrah, and that her daughter would end up in hell.


I wondered who had chosen Berkeley—of all places—for Betsy to complete her degree. It was, of course, Betsy, who'd studied abroad for her junior year, a tradition that has a purpose: to broaden. Betsy would be okay, I told myself, as I made plans to move into my boyfriend's apartment and searched for a suitable replacement flat mate for Betsy.


Memories of Betsy and the town of Muncie resurfaced recently while I was watching Strangers at the Gate, an Academy Award nominated New Yorker  documentary about a U.S. Marine who built an IED to bomb his "enemies" at the Islamic Center of Muncie, rose out of hatred thanks to the welcoming Muslim community, many of them Afghan refugees, and became a Muslim himself. It's a beautiful film about personal transformation, but incomplete in its depiction of the town.


Muncie today has a population of 63,000. Thirty percent live in poverty, about 10.5% are Black, 2.5% are refugees, only 25% of the population is college educated, and the median family income is $36,000.


When I asked Yvonne Thompson, born and raised in Muncie, and now Executive Director of the Muncie Human Rights Commission, how the Black community is doing today, her answer was unequivocal. "Ever since the automotive industry left, we've been sliding backwards," she told me. The General Motors Chevrolet Plant closed in 2006, and the Borg Warner Plant—they made clutches-- closed in 2009. Suddenly, 20,000 people in Muncie were unemployed, a catastrophe for many families, Black and White . Thus, the recent Census poverty stats from Muncie, the appearance of gangs in the Black community, the intensifying of a housing crisis, and uninterrupted red-lining. Oddly, the opioid crisis, raging everywhere in the United States, is mostly hitting the poor White community in Muncie.


Why did the resettlement agencies choose Muncie for the Afghan refugees? The interviews in the documentary with members of the Mosque are upbeat and hopeful. And when I talked to Bibi Bahrani, who is featured in the film, she expressed only gratitude for the Governor of Indiana, the Mayor of Muncie, and the warm welcome refugees have received. The Bahranis have lived in Muncie for 36 years, having arrived after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and are now helping new  refugees find jobs and homes.


"They keep to themselves," Thompson explains. "They look after each other. They are a tight, quiet community."


A community which is still de facto segregated despite the many years of Civil Rights activism and Civil Rights legislation.



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Self-portrait ©copyright Maedeh Ojaghlou 2023 by permission. The calligraphy,#womanlifefreedom, in the colors of the Iranian flag--without the Islamic symbol--has become the emblem of the 2023 Iranian resistance/revolution.





How many deaths?
How many are enough?
Should the list include everyone? Can it?
How can a list be complete when it cannot account for the ones who disappeared without a trace…


-Poupeh Missaghi, "trans(re)lating house one,"   Coffee House Press



Throughout recent history, Iranian women of all ages, genders, income levels and education have participated in national uprisings. In 2023, they are not only participating, they are organizing a resistance which is now massive in scale. The Iranian government is reacting with lethal force, escalating arrests and executions.


More than 500 people have already been killed in the current protests including four public executions. Taraneh Alidoosti, a well-known Iranian actress, and one of the most high-profile targets in Iran's campaign against celebrities who have expressed solidarity with the demonstrators, was arrested on Dec. 18th. Though she has since been released, many others haven't. Neda Naji, a labor activist, was sentenced to 8 months in prison, 60 lashes, and fined.


There are about 500,000 Iranians and Iranian-Americans in the United States right now and none of them, I am certain, are sleeping well. Maedeh Ojaghlou, 28-years-old, arrived in New York City via Dubai from Tehran on an F1 student visa in August 2022. We connected on the New Paltz Community Facebook page and then met for the first time last week for an in-person conversation at a Dunkin Donuts, a dystopian experience, as it was very crowded and we were both masked up. Maedeh (pr. MAH-eh-day)  was wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan of the Iranian resistance: #womanlifefreedom, a reverberating echo of women all over the world who have struggled for voting rights, abortion rights, the right to be educated, the right to choose a life partner, the right to equal pay, the right to surface from the hijab into air and light, or to remain veiled—in other words, the right to choose.


Maedeh and I had a lot to talk about and fell into conversation easily. Since the  444-day siege of the American Embassy in Tehran, there has been no official American consulate presence there. When Maedeh received her acceptance for the MFA program in photography at SUNY New Paltz, she was desperate to accept, but didn't know how her modest, middle-class family—her father is an accountant, her mother a housewife—could afford the funds for travel to Dubai to obtain a visa, and then living expenses once she arrived on campus. Somehow, the family found the money.


Maedeh's sister had already emigrated to the United States where she works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, so the family was accustomed to departures of their loved ones, and resigned to the financial sacrifice necessary to educate their children, especially their daughters. 


Many wealthy Iranian families had fled when the mullahs came to power in 1979 after the fall of the Shah, leaving the less affluent to navigate the new theocracy on their own, in the same way ordinary Afghan families now have to navigate the evisceration of freedoms and opportunities by the Taliban after the American evacuation which privileged those working for the American government or military. The religious fundamentalism of both regimes has been life changing for everyone, especially the women. And Iranians and Afghanis even share related languages: a Farsi-speaking Iranian can probably understand a Dari-speaking Afghani, and vice versa.


Maedeh has been an activist for many years. She had volunteered for a charity helping child laborers, some as young as five-years-old, and her parents knew she would have been on the streets demonstrating every day after Mhasa Amini's death. "But my parents  weren't just worried about me," Maedeh says. "They were worried about me and everyone else. We all worry about each other in Iran."  


Before long, Maedeh was on a plane to Dubai, her MFA acceptance in hand, applying for a visa. Soon after she landed in New York City, she joined demonstrations with friends and started posting photos on her Instagram account.


It might be difficult for Americans to understand that the demonstrators may, or may not, have an argument with Islam itself, one of the world's great religions. Maedeh's mother is devout, she does wear a hijab, but she supports and encourages the evolution of a new forward-looking generation. And her father, whose father was killed in the Iran-Iraq war, encourages his children to fight for freedom in a sanctioned country where there is no separation of church and state, and taxes go to advancing nuclear power and building drones for Russia's war against Ukraine.


Life in the United States is calm by comparison to Iran, Maedeh says. She misses her family, but she is safe for now, and feels free to study and demonstrate without fear of arrest, solitary confinement, floggings, or death. 


Dedicated to the brave women of Iran and Afghanistan.


For more information about incarcerated writers in Iran:




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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 99

My avatar unmasked.


Do You See Me?


      Sky People cannot learn, you do not See.


-Neyteri to Jake in "Avatar"


As if one needed eyes in order to see.


-Ralph Waldo Emerson


I am usually the only athlete in the gym wearing a mask, and one of the oldest, white-haired women. There's another woman in my demographic, but she does not wear a mask. Kudos  as she fast-walks for more than an hour on the treadmill listening to something or other on her headset, oblivious to everyone huffing and puffing around her. Once the guy next to her did interval training, got off the treadmill, huffed and puffed and spewed. No one said anything about his lack of consideration even though the Ulster County Department of Health had just sent out another "high" Covid alert about a new variant.


The years slowed during lockdown, and now have accelerated.  Based on my own unprofessional survey, those in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, don't feel the acceleration as much as older people. They have more time ahead of them, so they are getting on with their lives, as well they should. But in my immediate circle, friends and family are developing ailments they never anticipated, some are dropping away into eternity wherever that is. Covid deaths and Covid related deaths—cascades of organ failure in the ICUs—are commonplace now as they have been during the pandemic, even among immuno-compromised young people, but when they first happened they were a shock, now they are not. We hear about these losses first or second hand, we sigh with compassion, we attend funerals and memorials and continue living our self-absorbed lives afflicted with the "fox-hole" syndrome: the guy next to me is dead but I've survived Covid.


A long article in the New York Times last weekend in the "Well" section suggests we recover from pandemic isolation with intention, socialize as much as possible, connect, reach out, make phone calls, cultivate micro-connections in our daily lives. But how to navigate this as a Covid-vulnerable older person wearing a mask? Thus my question today to you, dear reader: I see you, but do you see me?


Feminist that I am, I dismissed laments of invisibility from older women… when I was young. No longer. Not only is the lament real, the experience universal, it is now exacerbated by THE MASK.  There is a caveat, of course: American culture is particularly ageist. And this ageism is amplified by our driven, material culture. The woman as object has not disappeared from the male psyche, which is why a not so young guy at the gym cruises and stares at younger women as his eyes glide over me, the invisible older woman, yet more invisible behind a mask. Younger women are also in a glissade when confronted with an older woman. It's more nuanced but it's palpable.


By temperament I am outgoing, by profession deeply interested in everyone's stories. Masking is a torture for me, an incarceration. And I cannot find a solution other than to talk through it, a kind of piercing cri de coeur: I see you, but do you see me? As an experiment, I'm going to write these words on a surgical mask in thick black ink and wear the mask to the gym. Who will respond and how? I will report my findings in the comments to this blog post. I anticipate a few laughs, at least.


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