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Lady Liberty is a Woman of Color

Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery."


― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"



Not only a woman of color, but a woman of many colors, mostly—or entirely—verdigris green at the moment, and forevermore, most probably. She arrived in New York Harbor from France  on June 17, 1885, just two decades after the end of the Civil War. Little did she know, from her optimistic vantage in the bay overlooking the first European settlements on the Lenape  Manahatta Island,  that we'd still be fighting that war today. What is she thinking of us as we enter this fraught election season?


She was bright brown copper when she was assembled on Liberty Island, intended to commemorate the centennial of the American Revolution, "Liberty Enlightening the World."  How low we have fallen from those heady enlightenment days. Just for starters, the barbarity of the war in Ukraine is medieval, a primitive barbarity not that distant from a cave dweller ripping bone from the flesh of a boar.


It's difficult to imagine the sensation of relief and promise my family felt when they landed here as refugees and went through the humiliating rigamarole on Ellis Island before being admitted to what they considered a land of promise, peace, opportunity and plenty.  Escape from genocidal barbarity to freedom and light. That is how they must have experienced it, I've always said to myself. But this is not exactly what it was for them, at first. They were ragged, desperate, poor, frightened, distraught about the fate of family left behind. They had to learn English, find a place to live, study.  My stepfather, a  well-known lawyer in Vienna,  had to get a job in a factory to support medical care for his terminally ill wife. He never lawyered again. My mother and father were sent to Wyoming by the refugee agency. She worked as a nurse, and he worked as a "ghost doctor" in a hospital where he shared his ophthalmic surgical knowledge with the local staff. Eventually,  they migrated back to New York.


The population of New York City was diverse and it was segregated by race and class, which must have been difficult to decipher. Class they understood well from Vienna, a status conscious culture, a person's German accent inflected with high class or low class origins, as English is in Britain.  How would they rise to the status they expected of themselves in New York?  They'd been persecuted as Jews, but when they arrived in America, they were, suddenly, completely privileged. Yes, there was anti-Semitism, quotas at universities, a myriad of discriminatory policies, but they were, at least, undeniably White. That gave them an advantage they did not expect. They made the most of it. By the time my sister and I arrived we had Black maids in the house. And, of course, they were always "treated well," "respected," "part of the family,"  addressed only by their first names,  and the grateful recipients of hand-me-down clothes. When I was beaten up by a gang of Black girls in the public High School gym locker room, my parents knew the deal; it was time to send me to a nearly all-White private school, where I would be safe and assured of a fungible college degree, and a step-up onto the affluence train.


Now I live in a town in upstate New York, where slaves were owned by the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers and the extant stone houses were built by the settlers and the enslaved population in tandem, laboring side by side, owner and slave.  So why does this town have only a miniscule—mostly  transplanted—Black population, and no evident slave-descendant population, though descendants of the settlers are embedded in the culture, geography and real estate of the town?  Obviously, Lady Liberty was taking a nap while post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and domestic terrorism raged.  She's finally awakened from her slumber and telling us it's time to vote. It's the very least we can do.

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A Writer Long Admired

photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022



I can do pretty good work in various short forms, but anything over 1400 words, I'd be of no use. I like to say I'm a river navigator. I need to see the shore behind the shore.


-Peter Schjeldahl





When a writer friend mentioned that he'd met Peter Schjeldahl (pronounced  SHELL-dohl) at a party in Brooklyn, I was deeply envious. I had been writing about my father's Egon Schiele art collection, not just about the art, but so much more—life itself, family, how a writer translates what s/he sees into words. I didn't necessarily want to ask Peter Schjeldahl how to do it, I just wanted to be in the presence of a writer who thought of himself as an art lover more than an art critic. Maybe if we shared a physical space for a few moments, some of his skill would rub into me. I wondered if he used interesting, literary words in his spoken conversation. His columns often sent me to a dictionary, which I enjoyed.  


He wrote for Art in America, 7 Days, The Village Voice and, finally, The New Yorker. Scanning the table of contents of The New Yorker when it arrived, I'd be disappointed if his byline wasn't there. When the magazine re-ran his eloquent piece about dying from lung cancer this week, I knew he was near the end:  




The obituary in The New York Times revealed yet more about him: He wrote poetry before he wrote prose; he went to Carleton College, he considered himself a "miniaturist," writing pieces of a certain length, never anything book-length other than collected essays; he never knew what he was going to say about the art before he began to write. In the writing is the discovery, an artistic act in itself, and Peter Schjeldahl was an artist.





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Checking in on Peter Zalmayev in Kyiv

Peter Zalmayev sitting outside on a peaceful street over the summer. He took this screenshot as we were talking, music playing in the background. © photo copyright Peter Zalmayev 2022 with permission.


This is how my July 7 interview for HV1 with broadcaster Peter Zalmayev began:


9 a.m. EST, Thursday, July 7. Well known Ukrainian broadcaster, Peter Zalmayev, is talking to me on Zoom from a table outside the Sto Rokiv Tomu Vpered Café (translation: 100 Years in the Future) on Volodymyrska Street in Central Kyiv. He's sitting outside, it's summer, jazz is cascading out of the café, and scooters are parked on the curb. "In an ironic way there isn't a better place to be right now than Kyiv," he says.


Since then, I've been following Peter on Facebook, or he sends me texts on messenger with links to his latest interviews. Most are in Ukrainian or Russian. (He is tri-lingual.)  This week he did two interviews in English, one for the BBC World Service, and one for French television. So, he's alive, he's still broadcasting. Thank goodness. But the peaceful hiatus is over.


Always, an interviewer must ask, "How are you? How is your family?" Peter is living in a war zone and talking to him is not about ratings. Everyone who has interviewed him knows this, and respects it. He evacuated his family when the war started, brought them back over the summer, and has evacuated them again. His children used the playground in central Kyiv that was hit by a rocket and now has a huge crater. No one was hurt or killed in that particular location, at least. 


When asked directly about his family, Peter's reply is, "They are elsewhere." He is broadcasting again from a bunker, wearing what looks like a winter jacket and a baseball hat. It's cold down there as it will be throughout Ukraine this upcoming winter, cold in the metaphoric sense, too, without the end of war in sight.


It's difficult for those working and/or simply hoping every day for world peace and disarmament to think about more weapons and more lethal weapons for Ukraine, about the training of thousands of civilians to fight and kill, and the ever present threat of a nuclear cataclysm. But it's obvious, from where I sit, as a child of refugees from genocide, that Putin's war against Ukraine is a genocidal war—as it was against Chechnya—and  that he must be stopped, somehow. It took too long to stop Hitler, the genocide in Rwanda, Assad in Syria, to name just two other atrocities. Put your finger on the map of the world blindfolded and you will find continuing global escalations of cruelty and violence and war on every continent, including our own. Then stop and take a walk into a meadow or a forest. Talk to the cows, the porcupines, the chickens, the owls, the bees. All these creatures, and then some, are wiser than us.


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What We Save, What We Throw Away


What We Save, What We Throw Away



There's a story, maybe apocryphal, that back in its 1920s heyday the manager of The Algonquin Hotel on 44th Street in New York City offered struggling writers discounts on lunch and was the only hotel in the city to allow women to stay there alone. Even in my more recent personal heyday, the management of the hotel welcomed writers and book lovers into the plush, comfortable lobby to sit and talk without disturbance other than the occasional visitation from one of the friendly wait staff hustling drinks or items from the too-expensive menu, which I always declined with ease, no pressure. Ease, in fact, is the word I most associate with The Algonquin lobby. In its history, embedded in every dark oak wood panel, the extant Round Table at the back, and a Hirschfeld mural of the Round Table revelers on the wall behind it, was the promise of success, if not notoriety.


The hotel, opened in 1902, its exterior landmarked in 1987—not its interior, alas—has been sold and resold several times, renovated several times, but always in the spirit of the original lobby with its famous round table, carpeting, oak paneling, and soft lighting. I went there often before I moved upstate in 2018, to meet colleagues and friends, or to sit and read if I was early for a mid-town appointment, or before I taught an NYU class in an art deco building on 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library.  


Last week, I went back for the first time since the pandemic began. Like so much else since Covid, the once familiar space felt alien, as though it was floating in another dimension. I was with my cousin, Karin, who needed to use the facilities before heading back uptown to Washington Heights, and as soon as we entered, I was greeted by four wait-staff from Bangladesh who have been working for the hotel for at least as long as I have been going there. They laughed and laughed, as happy to see me as I was to see them. We had all survived Covid thus far, and the fact that they were still working under new management was a miracle. I hadn't yet looked around the lobby, so focused was I on the celebratory greetings.


Karin sat on a low chair to rest before heading uptown, and a text came in from my friend, MacKay, to say he was a block away. I still hadn't noticed the new décor. At what moment I saw it, actually took it in, I cannot say. Maybe MacKay noticed it first. As soon as Karin left, we perused the changes: the floor stripped down to concrete, the plush couches, chairs and small tables replaced with plastic couches, chairs and tables, and when I asked about the big roundtable itself, I was escorted to the back where there was a small child-sized replica. And that was it. The Algonquin Round-Table was gone. So, too, the warm oak wood paneling which has been painted over in white.


Marriott is the newest owner of the hotel, which is now part of their "autograph collection," an ironic title I'd say, as they have expunged the literary history of the hotel, no writers I could see, except for myself, were there ready and willing to sign an autograph in the flyleaf of a recently published book. Contemporary reports of the lobby's gutting and $4.5 million renovation suggest various "artifacts," such as real books by famous Round-Table writers, placed on shelving somewhere, but there was no there there that I could see.


It seems that Sara Duffy of the design firm Stonehill Taylor is responsible for this historic lobby's desecration. In an April 5, 2022 article in Interior Design by Stephen Treffinger, she says, "We took all these ideas and looked at them in subtle ways, never kitschy." She mentions the obliteration of the oak paneling with white paint casually, perhaps with pride, I'm not sure. Apparently she's an established designer with a secure reputation and a lot of high-paying corporate clients. Corporate "hostile" takeover? That explains it.


Despite this unexpected disappointment, MacKay and I sat down to chat and share a pot of chamomile tea, and that was all we had. Insult to injury, the bill came in at $25.




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They Changed the Locks

© Peggy Weis, "The Devil's Inferno."  Since 9/11 artists and writers have re-imagined the American flag.


A liar has many points to his favour,—but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

― Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875)`


When Fascism came into power, most people were unprepared, both theoretically and practically. They were unable to believe that man could exhibit such propensities for evil, such lust for power, such disregard for the rights of the weak, or such yearning for submission. Only a few had been aware of the rumbling of the volcano preceding the outbreak."

― Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (1941)


My historian husband reassures me that left wing-right wing surges are cyclical, and that Planet Earth and the Universe, now protected by NASA from asteroid collision, will right itself. But in the 20-odd days I have not written a regular blog post, at least two fascist leaning leaders (small or capital F, your choice) have ascended to the Parliaments of Sweden and Italy respectively, and Masha Amini was  killed by the "morality" police in Iran. What the American Senate looks and feels like to me, a child of refugees from fascism is, in some ways, much worse: it is a clear and present danger to the fabric of American life which so many in emerging democracies or autocratic tyrannies still regard as their beacon of hope. Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale vision is no longer a vision, it's a reality in America. Our Supreme Court is our morality police. How many women will die as a consequence of their rulings?


So. let me proceed with the thought expressed in the title of this post: It feels as though I've been on vacation, had a wonderful time, and returned to find strangers in the house and the locks changed. Is that too dramatic? I don't think so. Were we not paying attention? Were our expectations of peace and prosperity and personal freedom delusional? Are these rhetorical questions?


Years ago, when I was in college, my not yet husband worked for AP at the Republican Convention in San Francisco. It was before digital photography and he was tasked with running film back to the main office. At the photographer's side, he mingled with all the politicians, including Richard Nixon. All he can remember from that encounter was Nixon's make-up, more than any other politician facing the cameras that day. What was Nixon hiding under all that make-up? A lot, as it turns out.


Who goes into American politics these days anyway? Good people, ambitious people, smart people. Many want to "serve their country." Up here in Ulster County we have a new Congressman, Pat Ryan, two tours in Iraq, he was an excellent Ulster County Executive. I interviewed him for the local paper, HV1, in the presence of his campaign manager, which troubled me, not the interview, just the attempt to control the flow of information, as I have written here before. Ryan withstood the scrutiny and I was more than pleased he won. But watching him introduce legislation this week to guarantee medical abortion pills through the mail, I cheered him, but also felt dismayed; he didn't sound authentic, he sounded scripted, even more scripted than on the day I had interviewed him. As a citizen and a writer, I protest at the celebrity packaging of our honest, well- meaning, albeit ambitious politicians. I want them to feel real to me.  


This post is dedicated to Masha Amini, the brave people of Iran, and the Ukrainians, all of whom are fighting to the death for their freedoms.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 96

Into nature for a much-needed break from the virtual classroom and Zoom meetings. 


Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022


In Person



We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

― Marshall McLuhan



I remember the last day in March 2020 I taught a workshop at NYU in person, a Wednesday, mid-week, the first week of the month. I'd taken the Trailways bus into Port Authority, as usual, and stopped into my favorite café to review my students' manuscripts and the reading I had assigned. This last pre-Zoom class is embedded in me, an iconic memento of "before Covid," though even that last class was disrupted by news of a strange as yet un-named ailment that had afflicted at least one member of the workshop who had traveled overseas on business in the days between one class and another. I felt uneasy, more so when I listened to the news about a strange virus in Wuhan when I got home that night.


I am the child of two doctors and know as much as any lay person of my generation wants to know about viruses. My sister and I were out of the city every polio summer and the first in line to get both the Salk and then the Sabine vaccines. Windows were open in our apartment summer and winter. Anyone who had trained to be a physician before the cause and cure for tuberculosis was discovered—and beyond—understood the importance of ventilation and resisted sealed windows and interior ventilation systems when they became the architectural fashion.


I called the Chair of my department the next morning and said I was feeling uneasy, something was going on. When I asked if I could teach my class online the following week, I was told I'd be terminated—terminated, what a word—if I didn't finish out the term in person. That was interesting. Apparently admin had been getting a lot of similar phone calls and had already decided on their policy—threaten termination.


As an active ACT-UAW union member, the adjuncts union at NYU where more than 75% of the faculty is adjunct, I called the shop steward who, in turn, called the union lawyer. I am sure many adjuncts also put in a call; by Tuesday of the week of March 8, the university had gone remote.


So that was the first chapter of my Zoom classroom experience, which continued to just this past week when I taught my first in-person class since that fateful month of March, 2020. I organized a "new" booster and got to work planning a "new" writing workshop in celebration, something I have never taught before: Haiku.  


A haiku is three simple lines. It distills emotion, sharpens the mind, and creates a sensation of mindfulness and serenity. When Covid lockdown began, I returned to Haiku in my morning journaling, adapting the form to suit each day's mood and challenge. When lockdown eased, I continued the practice, as I still do today. So, I thought, why not teach something life-affirming as we re-enter life, not as we once knew it, but as it has become.


Last Tuesday was our first "Haiku Circle" get together, sitting—albeit  still distanced—in  a community room in a local library. How I'd missed the three dimensional contact, the unexpected gesture, the tone of voice, a bashful smile. Is there any way to tell if a person is sad or bashful on Zoom if we have never met before? I don't think so.


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Tibor Spitz, The Holocaust, and Me

Tibor & Noemi Spitz photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022





Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.

-Primo Levi 


The wound is the place where the Light enters you.





I first met Tibor Spitz at the opening of his retrospective at the Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz, NY in late August, 2022. One of the co-founders of the center, Helene Bigley, and my Covid walking partner all those difficult months, insisted I meet him. The gallery had re-opened, a celebration. But when she told me that Tibor is a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia, I resisted. Over the years, as Second Generation, I've written a lot about the Holocaust, my own family's story, in particular, and done what Helen Epstein in her book, Children of the Holocaust, calls the "emotion work" for the family. As Epstein writes, many of the survivors kept their stories hidden from their children and from themselves. When the Second Generation began to ask questions, and were met with silence or denial, the family dynamics often shifted. Mine certainly did. Once I found out the truth about my murdered relatives, particularly my maternal grandmother, Nanette, who was killed at Auschwitz in her fifties, I became enraged.


I read and wrote nonstop for many years about the Holocaust, or the Holocaust surfaced in my work unexpectedly as I was writing about other things. I felt it was my mandate, as a writer, to bear witness and document the genocide in a way my parents could not. Eventually, after a lot of writing and therapy, my rage eased and I became interested in international peace-making, truth and reconciliation, conflict resolution and human rights initiatives.


Now older, I am protective of my equilibrium and do not read or write much about the Holocaust anymore, though, oddly, I enjoy German films and contemporary German authors, such as Jenny Erpenbeck,  in which there is a reckoning with the fascist and communist past. (She is East German). Indeed, this is my first foray back into the subject for many years. It's not that the killing fields have faded from memory, only that I can manage the specter of the atrocities and my personal losses if I remain somewhat distanced and self-protective. So, I told my friend Helene that I wouldn't come to Tibor's opening. But then I went anyway, not for fear of disappointing her, but because my curiosity was peaked when I looked Tibor Spitz up online, and saw his paintings. If Chagall had been a pointillist, he would have painted like Tibor Spitz.  I write about art and artists a lot. Why had I never heard of Tibor as an artist before? His canvases and ceramics are masterpieces. Indeed, he is a renowned artist in New York State's mid-Hudson Valley, and beyond. Not to mention, that he is probably one of the only living Holocaust survivors in the mid-Hudson Valley. As is his wife, Noemi. How could I not meet them?


The room was crowded, just about everyone unmasked, except for me and one or two others, as they are these days. Helene spotted me and dragged me over to meet Tibor, a short, muscular man who reminded me both of Picasso and my Austrian- born father. At 93-years-old, Tibor could be my father. And it wasn't only his body, but the shape of his head, the shape of my head, the fulness of the lips, which resembles the Egyptian reliefs of Akhenaten, visually confirming DNA ancestry analysis: we are North African.


Tibor pointed at my mask aggressively and said, "Why are you hiding behind that?" and pulled me towards him in a big bear hug.


Hiding. It was the perfect description of my mood.


I decided to leave, only to return a few days later when Tibor and Noemi were scheduled to do a "gallery sit." I was determined to face his complicated survival story, and to listen to it without interruption;  he and his family had lived for seven months underground in a forest dug-out, no more than  a mound of reinforced earth, overlooking  Dolný Kubín, a mountainous region of northern Slovakia, near the Polish border. They subsisted largely on frozen berries and edible roots, dodging Nazi police patrols. Although he didn't become an artist until he retired as an chemical engineer for IBM in 1968,  he'd always wanted to be an artist, and repeated and stored the mystical stories his cantor father told him when he was a boy, even more so in hiding. "If I hadn't been able to imagine something else, I would have gone insane," he says.


This time the gallery was not crowded. I stood back, notebook in hand, and listened to Tibor talking to a woman about a ceramic image of horses she was interested in buying and heard him say, "To help people feel good is the only thing worth doing. Horses are serene creatures and they are vegetarian."  That gave me pause. Tibor Spitz has found happiness in his work and in sharing his work with admirers. Plus, his remark was humorous. He is neither bitter, nor enraged. I want to get to that peaceful place as I age, I thought.


Eventually, everyone in the gallery left, and there was still some time before closing, so I suggested to Tibor and Noemi that we sit in a circle a bit distanced so I could take off my mask. One of my hearing aids failed, and Noemi offered to put in a new battery, then instructed me on prolonging its life. 


It was now a family gathering. We sat alone, surrounded by Tibor's powerful work talking about painting, writing practice, and the redemptive power of making art. Tibor's work exudes more strength than pain, even a bit of whimsy at times. And the ceramics, in their two dimensionality, bring the faces and bodies from Tibor's memory and imagination to eternal life. 


Tibor Spitz: A Retrospective: Stories, Remembrances," curated by Simon Draper and Faheem Haider, at the Unison Art Gallery in New Paltz, NY will run through September 18.  Call to make an appointment: (845) 255-1559



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Where There's Smoke


Where There's Smoke


  Adults keep saying: "We owe it to the young people to give them hope." But I don't want your hope. I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is."


-Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 25, 2019. 



The Nanopoch Fire started on August 27, probably by a lightning strike. As I write, it has consumed about 100 acres of the Minnewaska State Park, just twenty minutes from the valley where I live in New Paltz, NY. I woke at 5 a.m. to the scent of smoke and the apocalyptic sound of helicopters, had a quick breakfast, and took a ride to the New Paltz Fire Station to try to interview a volunteer firefighter or two, but they must have been resting, as were their three dinosaur-sized vehicles. I wanted to ask, "So what's it been like for you these past few days?"


It's been all hands on deck as Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan announced a unified command: The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Forest Rangers, staff volunteers, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Ulster County Emergency Services, the New York State Police Aviation—the helicopters—and the the State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services and local volunteer fire departments. That's what it takes to contain a wildfire.


I got back into my car and drove down Route 151 South to a building where I used to live; it has a deck overlooking the ridge. And there I saw it: smoke covering the valley like an old, smelly blanket. Inhaling the particulates from smoke is almost as dangerous as the fire itself, especially to young or damaged lungs.


This is the third wildfire in New York State this summer, albeit the worst so far. Like Hurricanes, they are given names, which I suppose makes them memorable for scientific purposes. On August 14, the Wanoksink Fire in Harriman State Park was contained within 34 acres. It took three days to graduate to "patrol status," meaning the fire had been contained, and was in a state of "mop-up," the firefighters walking every inch on foot to make sure it was out. Firefighters, by the way, are well trained, and they are brave, though we probably don't need reminding after 9/11.


Summer, 2022 fire #2 was on August 21, in Wawarsing, now known as the Losees Hill Fire. Rangers, assisted by several volunteer fire departments, worked on bulldozer lines to contain the fire to 2.5 acres and they did that in just a few hours. That was a relatively easy one.


But here's the upshot: climate change is here. These fires are yet another warning in an accumulation of warnings—torrential rains, flash flooding and other extreme weather events. The tinder under our hiking feet this summer has been bone dry. Every time a cloud passed during August we hoped for a few drops of rain. It was never enough.


Maybe a trip to the moon would satisfy now that we've made a mess of things here. No wonder there's so much excitement at NASA. Forgive me, but I'm not going to watch the launch of the new rocket. I'll be thinking about Greta's dream for Planet Earth instead and what we can we do day to day, each and every one of us, to contribute to her effort. Here's a list. Please feel free to add to it in the comments:


1.    Compost. If you do not have a garden, find a pilot compost program. I live in an apartment complex—but I take my compost every couple of days to one of two communal compost piles. One is next to a communal garden, the other next to the Village Community Center Pollinator Garden.

2.    Do not ride when you can walk, or bike. Save on fossil fuel and if you can afford it, go electric or hybrid.  When you rent a car, ask if they have a hybrid or electric car.

3.    Recycle, Do not put recycle items into a plastic bag; it will get thrown as is into the dump. Eliminate plastic bags as much as you can. Wash out your garbage pails.

4.   Conserve water. Take shorter showers. There's a drought. Reservoirs are low. Water is not only needed for human--and animal and plant--survival, but to fight fires.


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The Surveillance State


The Surveillance State




And when they spy on us let them discover us loving.


-Alice Walker, "Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart"




this post is dedicated to Salman Rushdie

may he continue to heal well

and write freely



I haven't written about Facebook in a long time. I was skeptical when it first began in 2004 and reluctant to put my face, my photos, my life on a platform for others to approve, mock, congratulate, pity, cheer or emoji, which was Zuckerberg's original intention when he and his cohorts designed the site when they were at Harvard. There was actually a competition: which face is uglier? A schoolboys' game, and a macho one at that.


Like nearly everyone else I know, however, I succumbed to the promise and temptation of instantaneous interconnectivity. Now there is Instagram (owned by Facebook) and What's App (owned by Facebook) and Twitter (not owned by Facebook or Elon Musk, as yet.)


As a professor, small business owner, journalist, and private writing mentor, I understood quickly that it would be a good idea to have an internet footprint. My NYU students always confessed that they had Googled me. Fortunately, I passed muster; my classes were always filled. And it has also been thrilling and life-affirming to communicate with people all over the world. Al Gore was prescient: there is an internet highway, but life has changed politically and geopolitically since he was Vice-President: Arab springs, wars, fires and floods, migrants, famine, domestic terrorism, autocracy on our shores, surveillance. And it is surveillance, or what I hypothesize is surveillance, that I want to talk about here today, though the discussion requires a preamble, or set-up. It will be as honest and transparent as I can write it.


I am a secular Jew, a descendant of the Holocaust, a genocide that wiped out nearly all of my family. I have rarely been to synagogue, do not believe in a God or gods, enjoy biblical stories as literature, the Quaran and the Talmud as ancient wisdom, some of which is relevant today, some of which is not. I have lived abroad, have friends and colleagues of all faiths and nationalities. I steer clear of ghettos—physical, intellectual, cultural. Though I have read deeply about the British mandate in Palestine and the historical necessity of a safe haven for persecuted Jews, including my own family who escaped to three continents, I abhor the idea of a one-party or one-religion state and all fundamentalisms, including American constitutional fundamentalism. I have both Israeli cousins and friends and displaced Palestinian cousins and friends. I love them all. If I could pray for peace, I would pray for peace. But I don't pray. I just do my best as a writer to pay attention and write from the heart.


So, when a dear Palestinian friend, who has American citizenship, and is therefore Palestinian-American, recently returned from a family wedding on the West Bank, and put up a Facebook post about Israel's shut-down of Palestinian human rights organizations, and yet more horrific bombings in Israel and Gaza, I wrote a comment on his post which began with the unedited and unskillful sentence: "The Israelis are fools." I then continued with more context, something akin to: if they only understood that Palestinian human rights organizations are their allies in the struggle for peace. That is a paraphrase from memory because I cannot retrieve my comment: Facebook erased it claiming it did not meet their "community standards." When I looked up those standards, I intuited that calling Israelis fools, instead of foolish, was tagged by their data sleuths as hate speech. When I appealed their decision, I lost the appeal. If I did not accept their final decision, I was informed that they would shut down my account. And though I let it be, I'm still thinking about it, thus this blog post.


The Palestinian-American friend who had just returned from a wedding in Hebron was stalked by the FBI after 9/11, as was his son who was in high school in New York City at the time, as was his wife who is a well-known Israeli-Arab-American university professor. The family eventually hired a lawyer to get the FBI to cease and desist. But it's not over until it's over. And though some surveillance is still undoubtedly necessary—more  importantly to stop  domestic terrorism than international terrorism these days, I'd say—the fact that I am communicating often with Palestinians and a (Jewish) UK friend  who is involved in the peace movement, puts Facebook posts and comments at risk.


So, where is Facebook in this story exactly?  By all accounts, the company is not doing well. Am I being paranoid, or are they turning over data to burnish their failing reputation? Just today, this news from Nebraska:  A teenager there is facing criminal charges for having an abortion. When local law enforcement officials suspected the teenager and her mother of acquiring abortion pills, they served Facebook with a search warrant for the teen's private Facebook messages. Then, once Facebook handed over the messages, they used the communication between the teen and her mother as proof that an abortion had taken place.


I'll end with this thought: Facebook is not our friend.

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Stand With Salman





He was learning that to win a fight like this, it was not enough to know what one was fighting against. That was easy. He was fighting against the view that people could be killed for their ideas, and against the ability of any religion to place a limiting point on thought. But he needed, now, to be clear of what he was fighting for. Freedom of speech, freedom of the imagination, freedom from fear, and the beautiful, ancient art of which he was privileged to be a practitioner. Also skepticism, irreverence, doubt, satire, comedy, and unholy glee. He would never again flinch from the defense of these things. - 


-Salman Rushdie, "Joseph Anton; A Memoir"



My first thought was, they finally got him, because "they," whoever they are in any moment in historical time, often do. My second thought: the rest of his life will be inside a security bubble and he will either be accepting of this, or miserable about it, depending on his gratitude at simply being alive. And he will keep on writing.


I was back in the United States when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie began and he went into hiding. His marriage ended; he kept on writing. He has never stopped writing. Our paths had crossed in London at various times as I was a journalist there. Then I saw him again in New York at Cooper Union during the international literary festival when he was President of PEN America. He was feeling more at ease, his security not as tight, he had a new woman in his life. By taking on the presidency, he honored that august organization's mission and its support when he was in hiding. Founded in 1922, PEN America, one of 100 centers worldwide that make up PEN  International, is both a literary and human rights organization dedicated to protecting free expression in the United States and worldwide.


Given what is going on in Iran right now, it is no surprise that the death threat, known as a fatwa, has been "renewed," so it's perplexing that a so-called enlightened institution—the  Chautauqua Institution in western New York where Rushdie was scheduled to speak—had  such lax security, and that Rushdie's own security detail was so slight, or, by some accounts, non-existent.


Over the years, I have had death threats because of something I wrote, and though I have never had to go into hiding, I have required police protection. Citizens who go about their daily lives and depend on the press for information are usually not aware of the risks that journalists sometimes take to gather news, or novelists take to create their stories.


I invite my readers to #StandWithRushdie by reading one of his eleven novels, or his memoir, if you haven't already done so. They are not beach reads, but they will open your minds and hearts to other worlds and ideas, which is what most writers attempt to do every day of their working lives.


#standwithSalman  #civildiscourse #protectpersecutedsriters #opensociety #protectfreespeech 


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