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Our Better Angels

 We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.


-Abraham Lincoln, from the First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861



Though I am profoundly secular, I cannot abstain entirely from the imperatives of what for so many in the world is a contemplative, holy week: Passover, Easter, Ramadan. I am not a student of religion, so perhaps the Hindus also have such a week; if so, please educate me.  


I have no plans to pray this holy week—prayer has always eluded me—though I will listen attentively as others pray, and if a person of the faith, any faith, blesses me at the end of a conversation or an encounter, I will  accept and cherish the blessing.


Thank you to all the believers out there for remaining hopeful that this worrisome world will right itself before the apocalypse, or that we will forestall an apocalypse—environmental, political, or both. Are we celebrating the first of several indictments? Not just yet.


Let us pray!!


Two of my doctors are observant Jews. They enter the office to examine me wearing yarmulkes and ask how is my family. If the family is healthy, we are well, one of them says, a faith based on modern medicine as well as religious tenets, I suppose. I recite the news of the wellness or medical challenges in my family and include myself in the dissertation. The examination proceeds apace as I continue,"This time of year, I think of my family murdered in the camps and my great-uncle Arnold, a doctor such as yourself, who tried to save people before their transport from Terezin to Auschwitz, or perhaps ease their passage." My observant and religiously observant physician probably did not expect such a long, pithy answer, but I can't get my lost family out of my mind, or disregard them, ever. Not to mention the recent atrocities in Ukraine, or the unexpected demise of so many lost to Covid, or at the hands of police, or the violence and demonstrations in Israel and Palestine, or the parched Salt Lake, and so on, all over the world.


Are we being tested, I wonder, and if so, by whom, or what? Have we inflicted all these afflictions upon ourselves?


My secular existence aside, the Talmud and the Mishnah are intriguing for a writer. These are commentaries, discussions, critiques of the text, a historic template for a writer's workshop. And written so long ago. Millenia.


Perhaps there are explanations of human cruelty in these tomes, and guidance for an altruistic path forward, such as this one: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief… Walk humbly now…You are not obligated to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it." Various riffs on this aphorism turned up on social media a lot during the pandemic, though there's an argument, religious in its intensity, whether it is from the Mishnah or the Talmud. What say you scholars? Does it matter? Is there a similar aphorism in the Quran? Or the Bible? Or the Bill of Rights? Are our foundational origin stories, myths, and beliefs, the beginning of an argument, a lifelong schism, a violent outburst, a war? Or will the better angels of our nature surface in the maelstrom as we pray for peace, or, at the very least, imagine it.


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Christ the King Church in Stoneridge, NY has a pop-up fund-raising Afghan meal every third Thursday of the month. Food is prepared by a resettled Afghan family. Reserve from a menu on the website: https://www.ctkstoneridge.org





Must living in peace - so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world - inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?


-Jenny Erpenbeck, "Go, Went, Gone"



The asylees and refugees arrived for a  CV clinic. I could imagine my refugee parents in that room pulling an old suitcase with all their belongings, speaking in a foreign tongue, all their valuable dog-eared, well-fingered documents neatly held in a small satchel, the sorrow of family and friends left behind visible in their gestures and facial expressions. I was there, and I am here, because the United States took them in, a lifeline.  


I had volunteered that day because I wanted to do something useful after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, strengthened restrictions at our southern border, and the backlash against refugees and asylees in the EU, the US, and now Canada where migrants are pressing for entry. New York State shares a 5,525 mile border with Canada, the longest international border in the world; our problem becomes their problem. With this week's treaty signing, Biden and Trudeau are in concert: we will share firefighters during a wildfire season, as we did on the Minnewaska Ridge last summer, and we'll send illegal migrants back to their first port of entry into the United States.


I have two cousins who began their lives in Canada because the refugee agency placed them there, separating the family. This happens a lot, even today, or even more so today. My husband and I mentored Nathan, a young Tamil man from Sri Lanka. His family was displaced during the Civil War after his father was killed. Nathan and his mother and sister fled, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Tamil-speaking South India. Because he was young and fit, Nathan was sent to America to work and study by the UNHCR; his mother and sister were sponsored by relatives in Canada. But Nathan had been granted asylum in the United States, which meant that he could not request asylum in any other country. "At least we are close enough to visit," he told us during one of our last visits before we moved upstate. His mother's promise to find him a bride could be easily fulfilled from within the Tamil community in North America.


At the CV clinic, I was matched with a young man from the Arab-speaking world whose father and uncle had been killed in a civil war. His schooling had been interrupted, his family scattered, many killed; his mother was missing and assumed kidnapped. I didn't get the full story; that wasn't my job. I had to find a way to create a one-page CV quickly so that he could find an internship or volunteer position while awaiting asylum, which can take years. This meant using my interviewing and rewriting skills. The CV he presented needed a lot of work. It was challenging to figure out what experience might be applicable and how to present it.


The young man has to be nameless here—asylum is not guaranteed, and deportation is always a possibility—but suffice to say he was sophisticated, educated, a former competitive swimmer and marathon runner, easy to work with—eager like most young people are—to complete his education and remake his life. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed getting to know him, enjoyed helping him. I am a swimmer, too, so that was our first touching point. Many others followed. It takes a village and this young man has lost his through no fault of his own. Now, he was rebuilding connection, however fragile.


He is one of many. In 2022, 103 million people were displaced. Each and every one are protected by international law, protocols and conventions, a set of guidelines on the treatment of people fleeing natural disaster, war, or persecution. Migrants, refugees, asylees, all have varying definitions in law, but, in essence, all the labels describe people on the move, people who have had to flee their homes against their will. Alas, laws, even international laws, do not guarantee humane treatment.


Small, mostly privately funded community resettlement programs are working in the United States, and the Afghan Circle in the Mid-Hudson Valley is hosting seven families, for example, but without government funding, they are struggling to raise funds through donations, fund raisers, and micro-grants. 


No atrocity, war, or civil war and subsequent migration happens in isolation from the flow of world events, particularly colonialism in all its past and present iterations. No flood or famine occurs in isolation from global climate change. What is our responsibility and what isn't? Some people feel the world's woes keenly, some are insular and apathetic. The call to duty, donation, or volunteerism is for every person to answer individually according to their own conscience.


Note: In the United States, the major difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are usually outside of the United States when they are screened for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry. Refugees and asylees also differ in admissions process used and agencies responsible for reviewing their application.



Volunteer opportunities in my community are listed below. Please add yours in the comments:









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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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