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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 87

Into the mountains. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022.

Let The Good Times Roll


In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.


-Albert Camus, "The Plague"



To begin, I hesitate to use the plural pronoun here, to extrapolate from my own experience; I'll just speak for myself as witness, participant, peripheral observer, narrator, protagonist. But I'm also a reporter and have gathered stories, not evidence, but stories. That said, I make no claim to knowledge beyond my own experience and reporting. But the sense of loss, real and metaphoric—of time, of opportunity, of family, of schooling, friendship, romance, micro-connections, among so many other facets of our lives, seems universal and profound. There is courage within us, of course, fortitude, even a great deal of joy, hope and gratitude for the miraculous vaccines, but I am not a member of the clergy and this isn't a sermon. It is not my job to elevate my readers' spirits in hard times, or to be a cheerleader as the good times roll in again for the fortunate among us.


Speaking for myself, then, there's a sense that I've lost –not everything, but far too much. This loss, or confusion, surfaces in pandemic dreams which have intensified during recent shut-in months. In the past, therapists have asked, "What do you feel as you awaken from the dream? Describe the sensation, describe the emotion."  And if some of my informants were asked to reply this week, they'd say, "incomparable loss, irrefutable loss, continuing fear and uncertainty, impatience with restrictions, eagerness to get out into the larger world, isn't it obvious?"


Speaking just for myself, again, even though I've got food, shelter, work, a significant other, and objectively can't complain, or mustn't complain, I sometimes slip into judgment—of a friend, say, who's just been on a skiing holiday, or another who's boarded a plane to run a marathon in Florida, or another who's been to Spain and toured around as though the plague has completely receded and life is already as it was—for  them. I am privileged myself, no argument there, and if I had the will or the opportunity to travel right now, I probably would risk it. Indeed, I am aware that I, and most of the people I hold near and dear, will continue as before, or even better, albeit older. There might be a glimpse of regret, or desperation, for those of us who were "older" when the pandemic began. These two lost years have hurt. Then again, considering the numbers who have died, and their loved ones who have suffered so much, maybe just being alive is enough now, or should be, as we pivot into renewal and normalcy, whatever our definition is of normalcy.


Sometimes the portentous dreams, triggered by what I have researched or written, persist. I think of the family down the street who lost a father to Covid and has been broken by sorrow and a poverty they did not anticipate. They became my dream. I was on a bridge traveling somewhere into the future, which was unattainable. Lord Byron might have called this dream image of nothingness ahead, white as a sun-spattered cloud—Death awaiting. There was no grounding in that image, no ledge on which to sit and watch the sky or sea. The only antidote to such a free fall dream is to weight myself in hiking boots and march full throttle into the mountains.  


I'm reminded of the days following 9/11. I was in the city and had to force myself back onto the subway to teach after roaming for weeks on foot. I  wrote poetry and read it aloud at events to commemorate the dead, and the courageous front line workers, and survivors. It was all part of the process of recovery; we will never forget, nor should we, but we will carry on. And something comparable will also be true of this global pandemic, now entering its third year. We won't forget, nor should we. We will mourn the dead. We will carry on.

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Free At Last

Esi Lewis in front of the still derelict Ann Oliver House in New Paltz, NY, the new New Paltz Black History Museum and Cultural Center. I promised to return to take an "after" shot and write another blog post once the restoration is complete.        photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022


Free at Last; Disrupting Systemic Racism in One Small Town 


I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood." 

- Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28. 1963


Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America. 

- John Lewis  Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020



I walked past Esi Lewis's house on Huguenot Street in New Paltz yesterday, just a stone's throw from the loosely designated African American Burial Ground—no penetrating radar has ever been done—and close to the Elting family burial ground across the street. And though it was a bitterly cold morning, the thought of Esi living there with her family warmed me.


There is irony in Esi's modern home on Huguenot Street with its neighboring stone houses built in the 17th century  by the slave-owning French Huguenot families. An accomplished Black lawyer, born and raised in New Paltz, her mother was the Chair of the Black Studies Department at SUNY. When Esi returned to New Paltz after many lawyering years in the city, she decided to run for the Town Board where her father also served. One commitment led to another; she has now also been appointed the "steward" of the New Paltz Black History Museum and Cultural Center, which hopefully will be open in a year.


"It is well-documented that the Huguenots were slave owners," she wrote eloquently in her proposal for the project. "For the forced labor that toiled on this land we have mere signage. Most, if not all of the properties that were built and or owned by the first Blacks and hold the history of the African Americans in New Paltz have been turned over to white ownership.


The ONLY anti-racist action under these circumstances is to restore the Ann Oliver House at 5 Broadhead Avenue to Black ownership and create an African American Cultural Center on this historic property."  


Enslavement has been designated a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and it is my preference to refer to it as such from now on.  Such crimes require reparations, or truth and reconciliation commissions; as Americans, shamefully, we are just at the very beginning of this process. The Center Esi envisions will be an act of reparative justice for New Paltz. In many ways, it already is. She is interviewing contractors, applied for not-for-profit status, and for grants. She held an—outdoor and masked—Kwanzaa celebration on the lawn on December 31, which was both festive and informative. The crowd was substantial and included the Chief of Police, his wife, the mayor, and other guests.


The Ann Oliver House was built in the First Free Black Neighborhood by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man. His mother Jane Wynkoop, born a slave and freed in 1827, purchased the property because the vote was only granted to landowners; she wanted her two sons to be able to vote. Jacob fought in the Civil War, and became a contractor and builder when he returned. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery here, a prominent citizen, his contribution to the Union Army and the  community unrecognized until recently.


The Village of New Paltz—the Town Historian, the Village Historic Preservation Commission, and the Town Board—worked hard to preserve the derelict Ann Oliver House. When the restoration is complete, it will become a companion to the  Jacob Wynkoop Anna Banks House at 6 Broadhead, under the care of Historic Huguenot Street, which is already a stop on one of their curated walking tours.


The relationship between the Black History Museum and Cultural Center and Historic Huguenot Street, an entity in and of itself, partially funded by the descendants of the Huguenot families who still live in town, will undoubtedly evolve in the months and years ahead. Some of the Huguenot descendants have been notably resistant to surfacing their troubled history. Yet, I am hopeful that a changed perspective and a new Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs at Historic Huguenot Street, Josephine Bloodgood, will ensure continuing improvements. In an email exchange with Ms. Bloodgood, she expressed abiding support—on  behalf of Historic Huguenot Street—of the new center.


There is no statute of limitations on murder and crimes against humanity. Indeed, it is past time to confront false narratives, obfuscations, and buried history, wherever we live.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 86

      Supermarket Encounters


Gun ownership is more common among men than women, and white men are particularly likely to be gun owners. Among those who live in rural areas, 46% say they are gun owners, compared with 28% of those who live in the suburbs and 19% in urban areas. There are also significant differences across parties, with Republican and Republican-leaning independents more than twice as likely as Democrats and those who lean Democratic to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%).  PEW RESEARCH CENTER



My husband, Jim, does not want me to get shot, wounded, or killed. He implores me not to confront a person, usually a white male, who is not wearing a mask. I usually say something to such a belligerent white male when I am shopping solo, even though I know it is a  grave risk. I cannot stop myself; I am incensed. "No mask for you, sir?" I said the other day to someone as I was waiting to be served at a small market on Rte. 32 that is always open, no matter the weather or holiday, a real convenient convenience store. This guy had his mask in his hand. "I have a mask," he said, waving it. "It's in the wrong place," I said.


That was it. He came closer, waved it at me, threw a five-dollar bill on the counter and stomped away. "Give the lady the change," he said.


My tip for speaking truth to his so-called power.


I can hardly believe the machismo I have encountered these past difficult months, more so since the Covid numbers have surged again. Women can be macho, too, of course, defiant, or just plain ignorant. The woman running the laundromat was mask-less during my last visit. I have chatted to her, know her name, and that made a difference, but she was annoyed with me. "Okay, I'll go get my mask," she said. "I'll comply."


"Thank you," I said. "It's for your own good, too."


Two days later I was down with Covid. Now I wonder if I got it from her, or gave it to her.  


I do not confess about a confrontation when I get home though I am often shaken. I do not want my husband to worry about me.  I sit down at the computer, answer emails, write, and try to calm down. I call up the research about gun ownership in rural areas such as ours and read it over and over again hoping it will sink in.


Yesterday's encounter was particularly dangerous, not only for myself, but for my husband. I know he would intercede to protect me, if necessary, thereby endangering himself and maybe some bystanders. We were at Tops, a football field sized supermarket in the New Paltz mall. The mask mandate sign is posted on the entrance doors and most people are masked. Then there's the one who isn't, or the one who lets the thin surgical mask slip under his nose.


We'd just recovered  from a ten-day isolation, and were enjoying our supermarket play date. Jim was riveted on all the meat while I was in the organic aisle getting some frozen blueberries.  When I returned to join him, a young man was standing at his shoulder, his mask under his nose. Even though we may now have more immunity, I got crazy. Without hesitation, I shouted to the young man to put up his mask, and though I had no expectation, I had no common sense, either. I had walked right into danger as I often do. I think it has something to do with being the child of Holocaust survivors. In another life, I could have been a relief worker, I know that.


The guy got angry almost immediately. I thought he was going to hit me, so I backed away. I had pushed his button and he started to rant. Instead of going to get the manager, who I knew was a young woman, a student, and putting her in danger, I took him on. It wasn't a decision; it was a reflex; I was protecting my husband and everyone else in harm's way. That's the way I think the reflex works; I gear up into rescue mode.


I backed away as he took out his phone. He wanted to show me a video, he said. Only then, did I pretend to ignore him. He was almost dancing now, shoving the phone towards me,  "You see," he said. "Masks don't help."


How could anyone sane and informed even answer that. I didn't. "Thank you," I mumbled, "I appreciate that," I said. He finally walked away. I was relieved; a video is not a gun.


But my husband wasn't happy with me, and I wasn't happy with myself. I promised I'd write a blog about safety protocols as we continue to encounter defiant and belligerent citizens. The reality is that we'll be wearing masks for a long time, maybe even forever.


Dear Reader, I'd like to hear how you handle such encounters and if you have any suggestions.  


#maskup #staysafe #walkawayfromguns #resistopencarry #reformgunlaws #walkawayfromrage  


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 85

"Still Life With Masks," an image from the early days of the pandemic before we switched to N95s. And we had thought 2022 would be mask-free. Wishful thinking. photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022

 State of Emergency; A Personal Lament


Join us in our fight to end the pandemic. Call on governments and pharmaceutical companies to work together to get the tools to fight COVID-19 into as many people's hands as possible….No one is safe from COVID-19 until everyone is safe.


-The  World Health Organization


To contain such a pathogen, nations must develop a test and use it to identify infected people, isolate them, and trace those they've had contact with. That is what South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong did to tremendous effect. It is what the United States did not.


-Ed Yong, The Atlantic



A woman with lupus can't get a test kit and is forced to announce her despair on my local Buy Nothing FB page. Another woman announces that she has an extra test kit or two from work and would like to give them away, but only to parents with young children returning to school, thus setting up an unpleasant competition, may the best family win.


Why is one person flush with test kits, or hoarding test kits, and another begging for test kits? What is going on? Where is state, federal or municipal government oversight?  Wasn't the scramble for vaccines when they first became available lesson enough? Why are affluent countries considering a fourth shot when so much of the world remains unvaccinated? Does this even make medical sense?  


Out at the Ulster County Fairgrounds the other day, no tests left anywhere in town, cars were lined up for a one-test-kit per vehicle giveaway. Because my husband and I were symptomatic, I crawled into my car and joined the queue. It was long, no guarantee that the kits wouldn't run out quickly, even though the giveaways will be repeated as supplies become available, we are told. What if two people from the same household arrived in two cars?  Are we operating on the honor system? I guess so. 


 I lucked out and got a box with two tests in it together with a "Happy New Year"  greeting from a local police officer. Thank you, I said. Why was I thanking him?


How can we stop the primal instinct to look after ourselves at the expense of others? How can we encourage our government—local, state and federal—to  become pro-actively responsible in this pandemic?  Needless to say, I don't have answers to these questions, and I'm tired. Though my husband tested positive, and I tested negative, I have an efflorescing head cold and need a nap.    


#getvaccinated #getboostered #hoardingforbidden #honorthyneighbor #altruism #thegreatergood #governmentoversight #governmenttestsites

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Hey, Good Lookin'



Hey, good lookin'

Say, what's cookin'?

Do you feel like bookin'

Some fun tonight?


-Cole Porter lyrics, 1943, from the Broadway Musical "Something for the Boys."



Happy New Year. We are already deep into the 21st century. Some of us have lived longer than others and have therefore witnessed and experienced more changes in behavior, language, fashion, politics, and laws, national and international. We may remember MLK, how he lived and died, Roe v. Wade, the day it passed, the ERA, how it failed to pass, and more recently, BLM. Some of us remember the draft, those that served and died in Vietnam, those who dodged into Canada. Remember the first Women's March after Trump was elected, Biden's inauguration? Sneeze (or don't, you may have Covid) and the moment is gone.


Our time lines differ, fluctuate, morph into a mobius loop of interconnected memories and notable historic events, taunting us, defining us, eluding us.


The enforced slow-down during the pandemic has not decelerated anything; life is lived forward, witnessed in the present tense. Some days it feels like catch-up. As a writer, a professor, a supposedly cultivated, educated, deep-feeling mature person, I've had to study and parse recent events through a telescopic lens, learn new pronouns, and accept them, among many other in-our-face enragements and engagements, if those words are apt, and they may not be given the current linguistic and culturally shifting mood.  It hasn't always been easy. No wonder that, occasionally, while listening to time-sensitive music, I am thrown back into my formative, retro teen years, and feel entirely comfortable and happy there, free of judgment or complaint from those who do not know me, or care to know me.


Cultural cues and clues, the contexts and references of a particular generation, are impenetrable enclosed spaces. Forgive me if I am outside your box. Dare I admit, for example, that in this #metoo era I enjoy strange men holding a door open for me? Would I ever have admitted to this even five years ago as I am here today? And even if I admit it, will it make a difference to me or others? Will I be shunned, ignored, pilloried, canceled? Possibly.


Which brings me to my mechanic, Billie, and his wife, Rose. They are the co-owners of Franz Auto in town and keep our old buggy going. The mechanics in the shop are all men, sweet to the bone, they check my tires once a month, and I enjoy chatting to them—chatting, not flirting, or maybe flirting just a bit. Do women still flirt, I wonder? I was in before Christmas, brought Rose a Poinsettia for her desk and cookies for the guys. And though I do wonder why there are no women mechanics around—gay, straight, binary, or trans—I enjoy the gallantry of the mechanics checking my tires, and their stories.


Can't we be old-fashioned and progressive all at the same time so long as our old-fashioned habits do not hurt? Because as I was standing there chatting to Rose, and she was struggling to put a new battery into my electronic key, someone—a man—walked  in and said, "Hey, Good Lookin," by way of greeting. That dated line, circa Cole Porter 1943, and re-mastered (masculine word) by country singer Hank Williams in 1951, was meant for her, not for me, of course. Rose didn't flinch. She took it as an affectionate compliment, an entry into conversation, one she might have made herself in our emancipated 21st century. To whit, she was not offended, it seems, as she launched right into a warm conversation which was, dare I say it, heartwarming.







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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 84

'Tis the season of lights. Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2021

What Xmas Means to Me This Year


Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

 -Marie Curie


Time can be wiser than our own intentions.

       -Han Ong, "The Monkey Who Speaks"



Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and Zen priest, runs the Harvard Happiness Study. He recommends that we declare a "best day in advance" each week. My day this week was today, which I declared as I drifted off to sleep last night. I knew I'd be up early to make it to the pool by its 8:30 opening, and it's easy for me to be happy as I am swimming laps. A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but the morning was rainy, snowy and bleak, so a declared day of happiness was a very good idea.


LOL, I met a cheerful woman in the locker room whose bathing suit had stretched out as much as mine. "Is your replacement suit languishing in a container as well?" I asked. And we both laughed, like the masked bandits we have become.


Oh, Happy Days!  On the way home, I stopped at a small local grocery store to stock up on hummus, a staple in my vegetarian diet, and LOL there was none. "We've been rationed," the owner told me. "Shortages are hitting the small shopkeepers hard."


But it's Christmas, or the American version of Christmas, the season of lights. No presents this year, just cards and cookies to the essential workers in our lives. We want to thank them for their hard work, courage and kindness, these past difficult months. Top of the list is our local mechanic who has kept our old buggy going without ripping us off, our doctors and pharmacists, restaurant owners, and independent bookstores, to name just a few. And we've donated to organizations that are doing important, meaningful work: the International Rescue Committee, PEN America, Save the Children's Fund and Wikipedia.


Wishing you all a peaceful and safe holiday season. May all your rapid tests—if you can get them, or afford them—remain negative and bright:  #getboostered #gettested #maskup

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 83


At the Diner for Five Minutes



If I was a painter, and was to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?...I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam. for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like an Ostrich, for putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it -' ...'And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!


Charles Dickens, "The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit" 




Dear Reader, I exaggerate, it was more like fifteen minutes. I'd been looking for a respite from a busy bunch of days tending to everyone else in my life but myself. and I was in Poughkeepsie, NY, waiting for my husband to get his bionic lens eye implant, and knew there was a very famous and formidable diner—the Palace Diner on Washington Street—where  I could eat, sip some tea, read and write. American diners date back to the Depression—cheap meals open 24-7—this one is faux Deco, built in 1981, with a vaulted ceiling and lots of cheerful stainless steel. I'd heard the menu was two inches thick, the servers friendly, the salad offerings fresh. I had two hours, plenty of time to relax and sink into my own thoughts. I'd even brought a notebook to scratch down ideas for a new nonfiction idea. But life pre-Covid is not to be retrieved just yet. None of the servers were masked and no one asked for any proof of vaccination. Well, this isn't the city, that I know. Mandates are looser: mask if you are not vaccinated, no proof of vaccination required. Though this disparity in mandate protocol may not seem like much, it is much, for me at least.


I asked for a booth "far away from everyone" which put me smack near the counter, the bustle of servers pulling plates from the kitchen hutch, and five steps away from the restroom. Paralyzed by my indecision—why didn't I leave right away?—I stayed and groused to myself:  It is stupid to sit here for two hours.


I decided to schmooze with my friendly neighborhood server, dressed impeccably faux 1950's, like a waitress out of the movie Grease. Did she have on a white apron? A little white hat? No, I don't think so.  Was she wearing a mask? No, I've already established that. "I bet you get a lot of people in here waiting for loved ones in ambulatory surgery and such," I said. "Yes I do," she said. "Hospitals and medical facilities all around," she confirmed. And, then, without even looking at the menu, I ordered a small salad and hot green tea. "Is that all you want?"she asked. I could hardly believe it myself.


The salad came to the table in two minutes. I ate it slowly, contemplating my next moves, then gathered my belongings and headed for the cash register where there were two signs stating—for  the record—that  the diner is cleaned regularly and thoroughly, and that everyone respects social distance. This sounded like Covid protocols from the spring of 2020, not the winter of 2021, a bit retro, like the diner itself.


So I left, disconsolate, because I really love pure Americana diners even though this one, like so many others throughout our Great Nation, is owned by a Greek-American—George T.—more of him soon—and surely has Greek fare on the menu.  So distracted was I by all the servers bustling about without masks, and the crowd of customers without masks, that I didn't take any time to locate the  souvlaki and spinach pie on the menu.


Now for the owner. I figured he had a story, a Covid story. How had he managed to stay open through the worst of the pandemic? Why, unlike most restaurants in New Paltz, was there no mask mandate for everyone? And those strange retro protocol signs at the cash register, what about them?


Next morning, I got George T. on the phone right away, but when I said I was a journalist, he asked me not to use his last name. "I get so many strange calls," he said. I wasn't sure if he meant solicitations, or something else. It was something else: When he did try a mask mandate, some of his customers were not happy.


Not happy? I wondered how not happy, exactly? Threatening not happy? Intimidating not happy? Gun toting not happy?


He changed the subject before I could repeat my questions: "I even bought a robot to the tune of $20,000," he said.


"A robot?"


"Yes, to deliver food to the table. I'll show it to you next time you come in. And, of course, we kept up with take out. Lots of take out."


The next time I come in? That gave me pause.


"Tell me you got your booster, George."


"Yes, I got my booster," he said as he chuckled. A fast talker, I knew right away he was a transplanted city person, like me.


"Yes, okay. I'll be in on the 21st, my husband's second cataract surgery. Will that work for you?"


"Great, I'll show you the robot."


"In my calendar. But I'll be wearing a mask," I said.


Dickens would have loved this conversation. He wrote his sixth novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, after his 1842 visit to America. He was mostly disgusted—not  disconsolate, but disgusted—that the business of America is always business; only the loudest and most aggressive customers are right.

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My Mother's Madeleine



My Mother's Madeleine



And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.


-Marcel Proust



I've been discussing madeleines with my students this week, the surge of memory that surprises, confounds and then inspires writers and artists when our senses are stirred in some way, often unexpectedly. I have missed the surfacing of such a palpable muse during the months of isolation, and feared that this particular connection to the physical world had fled. Like so many of us, I had been holding my breath, and once vaccinated, was able to exhale, more or less. I finished a short story last week and have returned to reading fiction; I'd only read nonfiction during the worst of times, and developed the dedicated blog, Virus Without Borders, which is already 70,000 words.


More than one of my students has been touched by Covid; Ed Koenig lost his partner. That loss, itself, became a muse. He's written a beautiful eulogy, published @ whowelost.org . 


Sadly, our writing strengthens as we grieve.


Last night, during the advanced (still on Zoom) workshop class I teach once a month, Eric Stotter showed us a clay ashtray he'd made when he was five-years-old; he found it among his mother's belongings after her death. Holding it in his hand again brought back a childhood memory of traveling with her on the New York subway for art classes at MOMA. The essay he submitted was stirred by this memory.


My mother was not a writer, though she was an avid reader in three languages. If she hadn't studied medicine, she probably would have  become an art historian, curator, or professor. The man she eventually married, my doctor father, became an art collector and drew very well. Their living spaces—together and then apart—were artfully designed, paintings on every wall, sculptures, all purchased many years after arrival in the United States.


Like so many refugees, immigrants and asylees, my mother had arrived without many possessions or mementos, except for a few photographs, an embroidered tablecloth and, oddly, a silver soup ladle which my grandmother probably thought was valuable and stuffed into my mother's suitcase. Also hidden in the pocket of her coat as she fled from Vienna to Paris: a small, round enameled "candy" box etched with an Italian Renaissance artist's image of puttis, chubby male toddler cupids. My mother loved infants and toddlers (she delivered babies) and she loved this box; it was her madeleine. Angels descended to calm her tormented spirit whenever she held it in her hand. She filled the box with M&M's for her guests and kept it on the coffee table throughout my childhood. Thankfully, I still have it.


This blog post is dedicated to all my students. They have persevered during the pandemic and shown up for each other-- critiquing work, writing drafts, generating new stories, revising, attending workshop classes remotely. They have kept me grounded and hopeful.

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This Thanksgiving: Gratitude and Admiration for Courageous Writers


This Thanksgiving: Gratitude andAdmiration for Courgaeous Writers


And above all else: we must look to our children.

They are the seeds of what is our potential

As a society. We can no longer blindly

Dismiss the wisdom they carry beyond

 their years.

They are the vaccine, the hope, the revolution…

The world has already begun to devour us all

Whatever is left is up to you.


-from "La Fuerza de Antígona"  by Tlaloc Rivas



I waited in the lobby until the student performers emerged from backstage. The playwright, Tlaloc Rivas, was also there. It was the first time the play had been realized by performers on the stage, and though the audience was sparse in the SUNY New Paltz Main Stage last Saturday night, it was an important occasion, a text come to life.


I had talked briefly to Rivas after I introduced myself, and asked for some help pronouncing his Meso-American first name, but my presence was eclipsed by the students, all still masked as they had been on the stage, arms raised in anticipation of embrace as they shouted thankyous for the play Rivas had gifted them. They fell into his arms and then posed for a photo. I can't imagine that the script was easy to memorize, but they had done well with the long passages of rhythmic verse, inspired by Sophocles' Antigone.


Reading the production script a few days later I could see how the students had so readily attached to Rivas and his work, before even meeting him in person.  The play was inspired by the atrocities on our border during the Trump regime, Rivas explains, and is written to be spoken, appropriately by young people, it seems to me, the next generation, soon to graduate. They will be living with consequences of the ongoing border atrocity, among so many others.


"Strive in your casting to be as inclusive with regard to ethnicity, gender identity or expression, ability, religion, incarceration status, or national origin," Rivas writes in the stage directions. "Happy to work with any director, company, or university to accommodate to specific needs..."  As they continue to wrestle with the Eurocentric canon, plays not to be discarded but to be studied in the context of heightened awareness, the faculty committee that chooses plays every season at SUNY took Rivas up on his offer and his challenge.


How does a Mexican-American boy, raised in Baja, California by a mother and her six sisters, become an admired socially conscious playwright and theater professor with a profound knowledge of the classics? His trajectory was unusual and certainly an inspiration to students:  He delayed his college entrance to the University of California Santa Cruz  and  looked after his younger siblings so his mother could return to college first. "It's what Latino families do," he said. "We look after each other."  Later, he went on to earn his MFA at the University of Washington.


The determined, forthright women in his life are echoed in his writing. "Should I call you a feminist?" I asked during a telephone interview. We laughed, unsure if we can  still use that word given the rapid changes in the language of gender identity. And the play is bi-lingual. Though I don't speak or understand Spanish, the dialogue was so well contextualized that I understood everything and was ready to return to my own study of America's second language after abandoning it for French when I moved to Europe.


"There are members of the cast who do speak Spanish — and there are others who are making the effort to do so, just like any other project that involves Shakespeare/or accents," Rivas said in a statement he made to the Department of Theater Arts after an article in The Oracle, the student newspaper, complained about the casting of non-Spanish speakers.


The complaint in the newspaper was mis-guided and mis-reported; it has since been withdrawn and rewritten. Fortunately, Rivas's maturity, and the goodwill of the theater department, kept the rehearsals humming. Kudos to them and all writers and educators who refuse to be censored, silenced, or manipulated in the current politically correct environment, however we define it. 


It had been a while since I'd been to a live performance. This was a good one. It's a masterful work, polemical yet mythic, a contemporized Greek tragedy about a despotic ruler and the imperative of resistance.


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 82

And Then A Tree Fell Down


I don't know that I could have admitted it to myself, but I just wanted it all to go away. And there, in New Orleans, for a few days, it seemed like it had.


 -Alexis C. Madrigal, co-founder, the COVID Tracking Project,  in The Atlantic, 11/9/21


Torrential rain again and predictable flash flooding last Friday. I got caught trying to make it from the gym to my car. It wasn't as though I hadn't checked my weather app numerous times before leaving the house and was taken by surprise. I was not surprised.


Why do we do this to ourselves? What was preventing me from accepting the facts?  I was determined to slice in a work out to my busy day, so I just kept on going. Had I checked if we had enough water stored, or replaced the batteries in the flashlights, or stocked up on candles? I had not.


The psychologists call this denial, a refusal to accept imminent danger and/or a way of coping with endemic danger.  But even the word endemic is challenging. COVID is already endemic. When and how will we accept this?  Double vaccinated, Alexis Madrigal, who has been writing about COVID since the pandemic began, decided to risk a trip to a friend's wedding in New Orleans. He came home sick, upending his family's life for several weeks. Does it matter that he wasn't very sick? Not really, he explains in The Atlantic article. Unwittingly, unintentionally, he'd taken a calculated risk and endangered his elderly relatives and his still unvaccinated children.


How does a calculated risk work? I know, for example, that if the dead tree across the road is not taken down, if I don't report it to the town out of laziness or disregard, it will fall on the wires just outside our house. There'll be a power outage, as there was after the torrential rain and high winds last Friday, and then we'll have to deal with that immediate calamity having denied that it might happen.


In addition to denial, a fatalism sets in:  Okay, bring it on, I'll get sick. But I'm not going to take any more precautions. Get moving, get back into the flow of life. Winter is coming, it's getting dark so early, we have to get out, see friends and family, all those postponed hugs.


Last night I went to the theater on the SUNY New Paltz campus for the first time since COVID hit. Strict protocols were in place—vaccine and mask mandate—and the audience was sparse. Even the student actors were masked, tested weekly during rehearsal. I felt safe, or safe enough, and so pleased to be at a live performance again. Tomorrow I'm taking a 90-minute bus ride into the city to meet a cousin visiting from Seattle. There is no way I wouldn't do this for her, and for me. What will it feel like at Port Authority after so many months avoiding what many have called "the armpit of New York?" Will I be able to use the bathroom there? Will I be able to walk on the streets of the city without my mask? Should I?


I think our minds and hearts trick us at times, tell us all is okay when it is not yet okay and may never be entirely okay. A fatalism sets in and we cocoon ourselves in a fugue state. Then reality pierces our well-being: COVID is endemic, too many people are still unvaccinated, Dr. Fauci warns there may be more variants, and we have to live with COVID now, and still, and for the foreseeable future. Will it get easier?  I hope so.

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