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Inflection Points

The pool is a level playing field.

 

We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic.

 

-Sharon Salzberg

 

 

"My name is Carol Ann," she said. How is that possible? I thought. My name is Carol Ann.  How dare she have the very same name as me? I thought, then took a deep breath. She had a gentle voice and demeanor, unlike my bold in-your-face journalist's persona. I was bristling, like fatty spare ribs on a grill. She was crowding me in the locker room, in the same row, a couple of lockers down.  I decided to get my act together and engage what is called in the bias and inclusion world the "extended contact effect."

 

I had judged this woman from afar for many months, and my judgment had not been kind.  There she is again with her rolling bag and attitude, I thought, whenever I saw her. If we get out of the pool at the same time she'll make a mad dash to the best shower stall. Only three of six have been open since Covid lockdown, an employee shortage like everywhere else; the stalls have to be disinfected daily. And that close-cropped haircut of hairs, how conventional, how provincial. Unlike my pool acquaintances, she wasn't friendly, never greeted anyone, and made a fuss when someone was late exiting their reserved lane. Or had I imagined that, or exaggerated it?

 

Okay, so here we go, and there she—that horrible selfish woman—goes yet again, I thought, as she rushed to the best shower stall on the day I finally introduced myself, intending to blast her for her selfishness. Why had I hesitated for so many months to make contact? I'm  educated, traveled, and I'd shed my city centric cosmopolitan bias since I'd moved to upstate New York, or thought I had. I could tell her a thing or two without losing my cool, right, or just be friendly?

 

Nice try.

 

My doppelganger smiled at me and began to chat. How wrong I had been to blow her off. Not only did we have the same name, we'd been born in nearly the same year. "Of course,"" I said, "that makes sense. Names are generational. Whatever was on TV or in the movies at the time we were born influenced our parents." I didn't go into the long story about my  refugee parents' choice of the most American name they could think of, a name that I have never felt suited me. I wondered how this "other" Carol Ann felt about her name. But that conversation was a long way off. I was still bristling under my politeness. Beyond our name, we don't have much in common, I thought. Wrong again. It turns out that Carol Ann is also a writer, albeit she writes for her church newsletter. Church newsletter. Oh no, I thought. Okay, so concentrate on writing, swimming, this beautiful landscape we both live in.  And don't make any assumptions. Here's a woman who lights up when she talks about writing. Just like me.

 

Humbled and embarrassed by my biased thinking, I tried to relax. Perceived enemies can be the best teachers of radical empathy.

 

The rest of the locker-room conversation didn't last long. We packed up our rolling bags—yes I have one, too—and exchanged email addresses before saying good-bye.

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A Student Finds His Muse

© copyright Alex Baer 

 

Michael Krieg, a former NYU student, wrote me an email this week:

 

Hi Carol,

 

Hope all is well.

I'm attaching the article about my Uncle Sidney.

Thank you again for your encouragement as this article began after a free writing exercise from your nonfiction writing 1 workshop back in 2011!

 

Sending best regards,

 

Michael

 

 

2011 is a while ago now and memories of my students and a particular workshop fade unless I continue working with a student privately, or run into them somewhere, and they remind me what year they took my workshop, who else was in the class, and what they were writing about. Once all that information has registered in my full-up brain, I am able to connect the dots. I certainly remembered Michael's name, which is an unusual name, because krieg means war in German and I was studying German at Deutsches Haus at NYU when Michael took my class. And I remembered that Michael worked at NYU, and that he was a photographer. That was a lot to remember about a long-ago student. I hope Michael is pleased, because I was certainly pleased to hear from him.

 

I taught at NYU from 1997-2020 and at Gotham Writers Workshop before that. I cross paths with a lot of writers from all over the world, and teach workshops upstate now as well. NYU employees and faculty often took my workshops. If memory serves, they got a discount. That said, they participated in the class full throttle;  they were eager, they'd come for a reason.

 

I was a good student myself and always loved the beginning of the school year. My workshops are always a new beginning for me; I start fresh, I feel renewed. I envy my students the excitement of becoming a writer, and experiencing the world through a writer's eyes perhaps for the first time. I know several much published writers of my generation who have lost this feeling and have decided they have nothing more to say. It makes me sad when they stop writing. Several of these writer friends have been professors like me, but few have taught writing per se. I think that makes a difference. My writing students keep me engaged. They demand that I pay attention to the efflorescing world with all its joys and challenges, including new pronouns and new writers. Being in the presence of struggling writers sustains and inspires my own efforts. I'd be letting myself and my students down if I stopped, so I keep going even when I am not inspired, or weary, or floating in a fallow period as I seem to be this post-Covid Trump indictment summer. Still, whatever else is going on in my personal life, or in my working life with my journalism or indie publishing company, I write in my journal every morning for at least an hour, and I keep up with my blog, or I teach a Haiku class, or volunteer at a library book sale. I stay close to writing, writers and books. Whatever is next in terms of a project will surface in my journal, or in a book or article I am reading, or someone I have met serendipitously, I am sure of it. The ideas stir, the muse resurfaces, and I surrender to it.

 

I have received several emails like Michael's over the years. They are always a joy to receive and I am grateful for them. And if a former student reconnects to share a publication, I share in their pride and excitement and feel even more gratified. It's clear from Michael's polished essay, "Scribbling in the Margins," published  in Dovetail Literary Magazine that he worked very hard to bring the story about his relationship to his Uncle Sidney to fruition once he'd elaborated the prompt I gave in class. It's the hard work—the  discipline—that matters, even if it takes many years to find the story and work it, like a sculptor works the clay. So, even if Michael had written me to say that he had revised a series of essays, he'd sent them out to publications, and most had been rejected, as a mentor, I'd feel gratified and hopeful that the rejection would not create a cicatrix that could not be healed. Michael Krieg persevered all these years, he developed his craft, and brought a story to fruition and publication. As his mentor, I am chuffed, as the Brits would say.

 

I often have to remind my students that there are many ways to get published these days, though the frustrations are legion. No writer likes the business of writing; it has nothing to do with the writing  process itself. But we press on, we never stop writing, revising, or submitting our work. Not to mention that we can self-publish books, or publish our own literary magazines, newsletters, or blogs, such as this one.

 

I  never try to convey a message, I just want to tell a story. Why that story in particular? I have no idea, but I have learned to surrender to the muse.  -Isabel Allende   

                                                                   

 

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I Live in a Forest

With thanks to ©Ed Koenig for this image of the GW Bridge from Washington Heights. With permission.

 

If a tree falls in the forest there are other trees listening.

 

― Peter Wohlleben, "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World"

 

 

 

I live in Upstate New York surrounded by trees. Most days, even in the heat inversion summer months, the air is clear. Unless there is a wildfire. This week, there are nearly 1,000 US firefighters in Nova Scotia helping the Canadians fight a fire that has devoured more than 8.2 million acres and displaced 18,000 residents.  Last summer, the Canadian firefighters arrived in my hood to help our brave firefighters contain and extinguish a fire on the Minnewaska Ridge. The pall of smoke from that fire lasted a long time and swept into Canada. This morning the sky in New Paltz was so thick with smoke and "particulate" matter, according to the DEC,  that we are either shut inside with air filters running, or masked as we step into our cars to run errands or go to work. Who would have thought that our Covid mask supply would be useful beyond Covid, or that we'd have to reverse the masking protocol from inside out to outside in?

 

We live in a shared arboreal ecosystem, interrupted by careless, human post-indigenous, industrialized settlement. Satellite imagery tells the story: One World. Our borders are artificial and porous; nation states are only nation states in our political imaginations. And with climate change, migration across these borders will only intensify. Families escaping famine, flood, or the ravages of war. But writing this feels like old news, tired news, news that no one wants to hear as the summer begins and I sure didn't want to write about today. Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, or the less apocalyptic Peter Wohlleben book quoted above, make disturbing and/or edifying reading, but it's not beach reading. No sooner do we assume we can rest, dear reader, than once again we must face a reality we didn't expect, or have failed to understand.

 

This morning at the gym, the young student at the front desk was philosophical about climate change, but also determined to participate in its amelioration. She even raised her arm and threw her fist in the air in a demonstrative gesture of defiance. When I asked what—concretely—she  was planning or doing, her answer was simple: "Vote for the right people," she said. "And register my 20-something friends to vote. We cannot retreat from a world on fire."

 

I'll take that heartening news with me through the remainder of this hazy smoke-filled masked-up day, and keep the windows firmly closed. The forecasters are telling us that the air won't clear for at least another 24 hours.

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Cougars & Perverts

"The Unlikely Couple," Cranach the Elder, circa 1517. Age mismatched couoles became a trope during the Lutheran Reformation. Cranach painted a series, most with older men and younger women in transactional, monetary relationships. Note the woman with her hand on a purse.

 

…The instantaneous personal magnetism of other people

is almost overwhelming sometimes, whether attractive or repelling…

 

-Nick Laird, from "Talking to the Sun in Washington Square"

 

 

Standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, the gatekeeper was friendly, polite and encouraging. The line was long, we'd get there soon, he said. He chit-chatted to everyone, and then gave a woman about to leave a hug. They knew each other, apparently, had worked together  The hug was "appropriate," it was innocent. The line sighed in relief, at least the women in the line did. The woman standing in front of me threw me a conspiratorial look. She'd been living in Barcelona where men and women, gay and trans, flirted with abandon, she told me, No big deal. So what has happened here? Americans are uptight, she said, they are Puritanical, the codes are different, the come-ons regulated by convention and laws. It's not just #metoo which legitimately confronts abuse, assault, and worse. It's something else, something embedded in our culture. Our mating rituals are all askew.

 

I'm a feminist, long married woman who likes men. I have never minded being hit on and usually have managed a comeback at a workplace encounter that bristled. Mostly, I've been okay. I'm tall and athletic, self-confident in my sexuality, and only once in my life felt fearful of a man when I was nearly accosted on the running track around the reservoir in New York City. I had foolishly decided to take a run off hours when the track was nearly empty. I turned around quickly, out-ran the guy, and shouted like a mad woman to "fuck off." And even that metaphor—mad woman—tells a story of learned, inter-generational, female self-denigration.

 

Long before #metoo, construction workers in New York City stopped "wolf" whistling at passing women, and men stopped exposing themselves on buses and subways, not that those are comparable; they aren't. I missed the whistles—I guess I was getting older—and thought, why shouldn't older women get a whistle?  But I didn't miss the unzipped pants on the buses and was grateful when the configuration of the seats was changed to open plan.

 

Fast forward to 2023 and the gatekeeper at the DMV. When I got to the head of the line I asked—jokingly—if  he always gave women on the line a hug? He laughed and explained that he knew the woman. "Well, that was obvious," I said."I heard your conversation." Then the DMV shut down for lunch but not before I was told that my husband had to sign the registration renewal, not me. And why is the car only registered in his name? And why couldn't I change the registration without his permission? Another long story.

 

"I see you are back," the gatekeeper said. "Did you tell your husband you asked for a hug from a younger guy?"  I laughed. My husband laughed. No big deal. But then the guy said, "Why is that when older women hit on younger men they are called Cougars, and when older men hit on younger women they are called perverts?"

 

Hmm. How to explain? He thought being called a Cougar was a compliment.

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Our Dystopian Nuclear World

Sueichi Kido and Erio Nakita, the curator of the exhibit, at the UN in 2015. Photo © Carol Bergman

 

As for the use of the bomb, she would say, "It was war and we had to expect it." And then she would add, "Shikata ga nai," a Japanese expression as common as, and corresponding to, the Russian word "nichevo": "It can't be helped. Oh, well. Too bad." Dr. Fujii said approximately the same thing about the use of the bomb to Father Kleinsorge one evening, in German: "Da ist nichts zu machen. There's nothing to be done about it."

  

― John Hersey, "Hiroshima," 1946

 

 

In May, 2015, I went to the United Nations to meet Sueichi Kido from Nagasaki. He was one of twenty survivors of the atomic blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki who traveled to New York for the opening of an exhibit in the UN lobby, discussions at the UN about the world's nuclear arsenal, and a commemorative concert at Ethical Culture School. Now 83-years-old, Mr. Kido attended the G7 summit in Hiroshima last week, and was interviewed by the Associated Press. He remained hopeful, he said, that nuclear disarmament will be discussed at the summit. But both Mr. Kido and any talks about disarmament were upstaged by Zelensky's dramatic arrival. Forgive me if I missed it in the press handouts, but I don't think that the United States was ever mentioned as the perpetrator of the first and only atomic blasts. Putin's bomb rattling may be unsettling and dangerous, but that does not erase the disgrace of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

 

A uranium gun-type atomic bomb (Little Boy) was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by a plutonium implosion-type bomb (Fat Man) on the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Little Boy exploded 2,000 feet above Hiroshima in a blast equal to 12-15,000 tons of TNT, destroying five square miles of the city. Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.     

 

                                                        – Source, Wikipedia.


The survivors of the bombings are called hibakusha, a Japanese word that literally translates to "explosion-affected people." Hibakusha and their children have been stigmatized in Japan and it is only recently that the government has recognized their medical complaints as a consequence of the blasts. My husband's uncle, Norman Cousins, the editor of The Saturday Review of Literature used the platform of the magazine for a post-blast adoptions program. Subscribers sponsored orphans and later brought twelve disfigured  "Hiroshima Maidens" to the United States for reconstructive surgery. You can read about the project here:

 

https://hibakushastories.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Hiroshima-Maidens.pdf

 

There is a plaque set in a stone dedicated to Norman Cousins at the Peace Park in Hiroshima,  and members of our family still attend ceremonies there every year. I am deeply proud to have married into this family who have worked for a just and peaceful world across the generations. And I am deeply concerned about the escalations in Ukraine as reported by Luke Mogelson in The New Yorker this week. The soldiers are enduring abhorrent conditions in the trenches, and they are dying in great numbers on both sides. 

 

The Americans—President Truman and his advisers—who unleashed the atomic weapons of mass destruction, censored the press after the blasts and suppressed the stories of the military witnesses and survivors. Even General MacArthur doubted the wisdom of dropping the bombs, and feared it. He argued that the saturation bombing of Tokyo—200, 000 killed—just  prior to the nuclear blasts, would end the war just as quickly.

A small man with a cherubic face once badly burned, Mr. Kido, a retired history professor, has devoted his retirement years to telling his story. "There aren't many of us left. We are getting old, we are sick," he says. Five-years-old at the time of the blast and living within the 2km epicenter, his mother carried him away from the wind and flames in search of shelter. Flesh was melting off their bodies, they were thirsty. There was no water, no shelter, no medical facility. The city had been incinerated. Needless to say, there was no question of a normal childhood for Mr. Kido after this holocaust. He didn't stop trembling until he was ten-years-old, or laugh, or play. PTSD doesn't describe the implosion in his body and his soul.

 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who has an ancestral connection to Hiroshima, chose Hiroshima for the G7 to highlight nuclear nonproliferation efforts, and to give the rapidly aging and suffering survivors a chance to see each other, perhaps for the last time, at Peace Memorial Park.

.

 

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Virus Without Borders #101

               © Ed Koenig holding a photo of his husband, Jody Settle, during a recent vigil, with permission.                                                      

 

I am part of all that I have met.

 

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses"

 

 

I started writing this blog post on May 11, the day the government declared the end of the Covid emergency in the United States. It's not a watershed moment; it's just one moment to take a healthy breath—if we are so fortunate—to celebrate the end of restrictions, fear, survival, the survival of our loved ones—if we are so fortunate. And not everyone is, far from. More than one million deaths just in the United States. Is our grief communal, individual, or both? Are some of us untouched and unscathed by these past difficult months and years? Is that even possible? And what about people in war zones, or poor countries, who never received a vaccine? Or the migrants crossing our borders and the EU's borders? In a way, the pandemic was --and is-- an ecological disaster, too. And AI mapping won't help us contain another one, or will it?

 

So this is back-to-basics, Virus Without Borders # 101, like the first day of college, or the day I began the dedicated Virus Without Borders blog posts more than three years ago, utterly confused and ignorant. What have we learned since? What have we learned that we can apply to whatever is next for us? For this country? For our troubled world? If we are indeed free of worry about this still mutating virus, how will we use that freedom? Will we become more indifferent and self-centered, or more engaged and responsible? And why is it, all too often, that those who suffer the most, become kinder, smarter, and willing to sacrifice? I have a theory: The privilege and self-centeredness in our personal lives—and  as a nation, and within our nation—has  been amplified by deprivation and fear, or released by deprivation and fear, depending on our personal challenges, traumas, upbringing, politics, spiritual beliefs, and temperament. 

 

My student, Ed Koenig, lost his husband, Jody Settle, to Covid.  Ed has become an advocate for the children who lost their parents, not to mention that he's been assisting migrants at his local church. This week he will attend a launch party of an anthology of stories, Who We Lost. He will stand up in front a group of people and read his essay, "On The Road Again," about Jody aloud.

 

The collection was curated and edited by Martha Greenwald, a former adjunct professor of writing and a well-known poet, originally from New Jersey; she lives in Louisville, Kentucky. Throughout 2020, Governor Andy Beshear held televised pandemic update conferences; they included  brief stories about someone who had recently died. Martha's own visceral grief was stirred each time he spoke. Her optometrist father had died in a tragic accident in 2009 when he was hit by a car, ironically, by a driver who had no peripheral vision. The story is described in the acknowledgments of  Who We Lost, but not in the introduction. "I didn't want the book to be about me," she told me in a telephone interview.

 

Still in quarantine, wanting to do something positive for others, she launched the not-for-profit  https://whowelost.org/ website and then approached Belt Publishing with an offer to curate an anthology from the website as a living, portable memorial. The website is still online collecting stories, and for those who have never written before—and even for those who have—it includes a fascinating "toolbox," with prompts. 

 

In truth, we have all felt vulnerable, we've all suffered, though perhaps not as grievously. I have not lost anyone as close to me as a partner, or even a friend, or relative. I've been free of that particular pain. I even felt somewhat elated on May 11 as I'd just received my 6th Covid shot and wanted to celebrate. I bought a new lipstick, a frivolous, pleasurable, self-care reward. I've missed everyone's chins and lips. I've missed my own chin and lips, my husbands chin and lips, my doctors' chin and lips.  I had an eye doc appointment this week and LOL everyone in the office was unmasked. "Oh, what a nice face you have," we said to each other. And, as I was departing, "It's been so nice to see you, I mean really see you. And how did you and your loved ones survive Covid? Did everyone make it through?"

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Oh, Did I Miss Another Shooting?

With thanks to Joyce Vance for permission to use this adorable photo of her well-trained German Shepherd calmly enjoying the backyard with her chickens. photo © Joyce Vance 2023

 

 

Every time someone talks to you about opposing abortion, ask them about their views on the Second Amendment. And if they tell you they're pro-gun, point out that's inconsistent with being pro-life.

 

-Joyce Vance in her "Civil Discourse" Substack Newsletter 5/4/2023

 

 

My new most favorite podcast is #SistersInLaw with Joyce Vance, Kimberly Atkins, Jill Wine-Banks and Barb McQuade, all clear-thinking, plain-speaking lawyers. I also subscribe to Joyce's Substack newsletter where she posts photos of her chickens, stories about her knitting, and signs off with "in this together." She's a southerner, and a storyteller in the great American Southern tradition. When she writes, I'm with her at the chicken coop helping her unpack the seed, a welcome working guest. Like so many strong, professional women I know—women  of all ages—she's  a model of informed integrity, balancing her work with her life as a parent, a partner, member of her immediate community, and the larger community of the troubled United States of America.

 

All the women on the podcast are exemplary—take a Google moment to check them out—and I am particularly thankful for them right now as they straighten out my thinking about the tangled challenges we are facing in the run-up to the 2024 election. The campaign is underway, requests for money already a constant. Joyce writes often about the fascism at our door, and the historical imperative of a second Biden and Harris ticket. Take another moment and have a read of her newsletter this morning:

 

https://joycevance.substack.com/p/the-week-ahead-d2e?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email

 

The podcasts are long—I usually take two days to finish them as I have others I listen to—and they have advertisements, which are entertaining, even hilarious. The women themselves tout various products and discuss them—everything from furniture to an at-home nail salon—polish that does not chip! I'm assuming they do really use these products, at least I hope so, even though I really don't care. I want them to keep on keeping on, and they need advertisements.

 

And just a short addendum. I wrote Joyce a note at her University of Alabama School of Law email address to ask permission to use a photo of her chickens and she replied in two days: "Of course you can!" 

 

Thank you Joyce and company for helping me, and your thousands of other subscribers, to sustain both activism and hope. In this together indeed!

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Freudian Slips

My mother, as a carefree young medical student at the U of Vienna, before the genocide.

 

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.

 

― Ernest Hemingway, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

 

 

My mother became a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst later in life, studying at the dining room table while my sister was still in her high chair and I was doing my homework. I remember the day she first mentioned Freudian slips. I thought she was talking about underwear, but no, it wasn't that. It took me a few years to understand that she thought she knew more than I knew about me because she could peer into my unconscious, via malaprops, which she called Freudian slips. What teenager wants an intrusive mother in her face? Rhetorical question. That said, I would have enjoyed her take on Tucker Carlson's obsession with testicles and testosterone. Let me try to understand: Because the All-American White Male is losing his potency, he has to air out his testicles on a beach in the Bahamas. Get some sun on them. Is that it? In one frame in Tucker's testosterone video, a  naked man on top of a pile of rocks exposes his genitals to a red light emanating from an air purifier to the sounds of a film score resembling  the 2001 Space Odyssey.

 

What say you Freudians among us?

 

Equally fascinating are the pundits who have not mentioned that this obsession is a wee bit weird, a wee bit idiotic. As the Roman Gladiator Decimus Maximus once said, "There is only one thing worse than an idiot: An idiot with a following."  Meaning that the idiot is a demagogue and like all demagogues, he is vulgar, racist, a whore among orators. Yet, when Tucker and/or Trump—and at times they seem interchangeable—spew their falsehoods, there is a flame inside them that attracts a huge following, even love letters from bereft women yet to be abused or raped. (Hitler was the recipient of many love letters.) These men live on spite and hate. They resemble mangy wolves scouring the dregs of society in the hinterland.  

 

America has a long tradition of demagogues on its air waves—radio before television, television before cable. I'm reminded of Father Charles Coughlin, who I studied in graduate school. I listened to his screeds at the Museum of Broadcasting as Philip Roth must have as he was writing The Plot Against America. Or, maybe Roth heard them live.  

 

Coughlin railed against the Jews as Hitler was murdering my family. Of the 120 million Americans alive at that time, 30 million listened to this demagogue on the radio. My family had just arrived in New York as refugees, and when they turned on the radio, they wondered if Hitler had arrived in America before them. Coughlin was finally shut down in 1942  by FDR's Attorney General, Francis Biddle, but it took America's entry into the war after Pearl Harbor to invoke the controversial 1917 Espionage Act to shut him down.

 

God Bless America and our First Amendment. The Europeans think we are nuts, that someone is shouting fire in the theater all the time, a loophole in our democracy, or a black hole?

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My Dentist is a Storyteller

Dr. Thomas Cingel poses for my camera on a recent visit.

 

You mean people pay you to do this to them? I thought you had captured these people and brought them here against their will! How do I become a dentist?"

 

 Michael Buckley, "Magic and Other Misdemeanors"

 

 

I remember the first time I met my dentist, not my long-ago dentist—actually, there have been several—but  my new dentist, the one I found through a friend of my daughter's after I moved upstate. His office in Kingston, NY is about a forty-minute drive from where I live, and I was in toothache agony until I got there, my husband driving, of course.  I'd already been to a dentist in my small town that day and all s/he wanted to do was take my blood pressure and insurance information.  I walked out, called round to friends and family to get referrals, and zipped up to Kingston. 

 

I am not a fluoride baby; no one in my generation is, and I lived in England for ten years. If memory serves, the Brits resisted fluoride in drinking water until--hard to believe--2021. And don't get me started about National Health British Dentistry. National Health everything else is okay, more than okay, but not dentistry. No instruction in preventive protocols. No regular cleanings. My husband and I have paid the price. Our mouths are pock-marked with fillings and implants and god knows what else. Not to mention that I have vivid memories of my long-ago pediatric dentist giving me a lollipop as I walked out the door because I had behaved myself in the dental chair. How sweet, no pun intended.

 

Enter Dr. Thomas Cingel DDS, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo, raised in a modest middle class family, an upstater, married to a mid-wife and raising two adorable children. His office is an oasis of competent health care and human connection, more so, if that is possible, during Covid. But it was before the PPEs and masks that I first took notice of Dr. Cingel as an exceptional person, as well as an exceptional high-tech artisanal dentist. He had told me a story about seeing a "live" painting for the first time in a museum.  I'm not even sure he'd remember this as he tells many stories to many patients every day, but I do. I'd never met anyone who had not been to a museum, because everyone I knew when I grew up in a big city, and then lived overseas in a big city, wouldn't think twice about going to a museum, or how special it is.   I wanted to respond, but I couldn't. My mouth was open as he was working on something—a sick molar probably—but I listened attentively and took it in.

 

All dentists love to talk, but not all of them are good storytellers, or have written amusing, illustrated books called Avid Flosser  about the importance of flossing, or are taking a class in stand-up comedy because they are hyper-aware of the absurdity of contemporary life and care, really care, about people. I lucked out with Dr. Cingel, and so did my aging teeth, whatever is left of them.

 

This post is dedicated to the front line workers in Dr. Cingel's office: Sharon, Karen, Jackie, Kayla and Dagny.

 

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Reading Backwards

 Kyiv at night. Photo © copyright Peter Zalmayev 2023 with permission

 

He had not gone to the West to study "the art of government." Although in Protestant Europe he was surrounded by evidence of the new civil and political rights of individual men embodied in constitutions, bills of rights and parliaments, he did not return to Russia determined to share power with his people.

 

=Robert K. Massie, Peter the Great; His Life and World

 

 

As soon as I started writing about  Peter Zalmayev. a broadcaster in Ukraine, a man I have met and admire, I realized how little I knew about Russian and Ukrainian history, or even that it is necessary to separate them. I had memories of my husband's shelf of books about Russia when we lived in London. He had studied Russian at the Holborn School of Languages, and then entered an MA program in International Relations at the London School of Economics. His books were left behind when we returned to New York, but Jim's insight and knowledge traveled with us back to America. I am therefore blessed with a live-in expert on Russian, Ukrainian and Polish history, not to mention family connections; his father was born in Poland, his grandmother in Kiev, now Kyiv, the name change a history lesson in itself. I remember his grandmother well, our struggles to communicate, her home-made yogurt.

 

As the horrendous shooting war on the European continent continues unabated, and without a ceasefire in sight, I decided to deepen my education beginning with the Robert K. Massie history of Peter the Great, a page turner. Emperor from 1682-1725, he understood that, compared to the Europeans, Russia was "backward." His goal was to bring it forward into what we now call "the enlightenment."  He spoke several languages, traveled incessantly, but he was also a warrior who defeated the Swedes and the Turks with his well-trained army, and many mercenaries in that army. (There were mercenaries in every army in those days and they shifted sides often.)

 

Are the seeds of the current war between Russia and Ukraine in these pages? And how, if at all, could it have been prevented? And how will it end? I have no definitive answers other than, yes, every past has a future, the fault lines are there as they are in every nation's history, including ours, but there are also rogues, despots and renegades who turn the rivers of change to their selfish advantage. Given the advances Russia made since the fall of the Soviet Union, we'd have to say that Putin is a rogue and a despot, a throwback to an era even before Peter the Great came to the throne, and that the Russian Federation is experiencing a steep and rapid devolution. I hope we cannot say the same for these United States.

 

Ever hopeful as I read, both backwards and forwards into the text, I search for interesting quotidian details to relieve the stress of endless battles, domestic mischief, and cruel punishments. Peter's peasant wife Catherine had twelve children, and traveled to meet him on the battlefield while pregnant. Their love letters are quoted in the book, and they are fascinating and beautifully written, albeit in translation. Peter loved ships and became a master shipbuilder. His sojourns in Holland, England, and Versailles, after the death of Louis XIV, were remarkable. Imagine what travel was like in those days: arduous. And one can feel the efflorescing culture of diplomacy in Peter's efforts, his fascination with the world beyond Russia's borders, his insatiable willingness to learn. Indeed, he was brilliant and forward thinking, though often misguided and ruthless. He also drank a lot, as did so many others in his entourage. And though weapons were cruder in those days, he understood that once they were launched, the damage was done and the battle begun.

 

Every act of war, then and now, has both deliberate and unintended consequences, consequences that reverberate and threaten to break us all beyond repair.

 

This post is dedicated to Daniel Ellsberg and his family. 

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