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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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An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others."


― Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption"


Falling down is not a failure. Falling comes when you stay where you have fallen.





A newcomer to New Paltz in the spring of 2018, I was still using my GPS to get around, and had rolled through a stop sign just north of the SUNY campus. I wrote a blog post about the encounter I had with a police officer at the time, and how unthreatening it was to me, a white, older woman. And though the officer stood behind my left shoulder as he asked for my license and registration, and had his hand on his holster, I wasn't afraid.


My daughter had a Black boyfriend when she was in college—his  dad worked for the court system and gave his son a badge to clip into his wallet—but I was a nervous mom every time they stepped into the car and drove from the city to Philadelphia, or Philadelphia to New York. In fact, there hasn't been Black male friend, acquaintance, or student I've had in my lifetime who hasn't had a problem, a scare, or worse, with law enforcement. Now the New York Times has just completed an investigative report on traffic stops, how they go down in various places in the country—more than 400 motorists killed in recent years—and I decided it was time for me to interview the Chief of Police in my small town to find out how the New York State mandate for reform is going. As everywhere, there have been incidents here, and a demand for transparency, more training, and systemic change;  a new oversight commission is forming. Unfortunately, the conversation thus far has often been irate, beleaguered and uncivil—evident  on the Town's YouTube Channel—more  so during our difficult Covid months.


"We're all hurting," Chief Robert Lucchesi told me about half-way into our long conversation in his office the other day, as he reflected on the vulnerability we are all feeling these days—personally, professionally, even politically. He's an educated and thoughtful man, with an MA in Public Administration, a love of nonfiction literature, and a devotion to New Paltz where he was born and raised, the first in his family to go to college. He still lives here with his doctor wife and three growing children.  The shift from warrior to guardian mentality has not been difficult for him; he has a nurturing persona. The wellness of his family, the community and his officers, concern him every day, he explains, ruefully.  Recently, he's approached the local clergy to offer pastoral care to his staff, if they request it.  "I wish we had more safe spaces for conversation," he says. "It's a difficult time, we are in the midst of a reckoning, everyone is guarded. And it's hard to find good officers, and not to lose them to higher paying localities. When we have a shortage of coverage, everyone works exhausting extra shifts."


I had first met Chief Lucchesi before Covid when he was still a Lieutenant. A friend of a friend had called when she heard I was a journalist. She'd found a white supremacist flyer—a blood libel screed—in  a Village Hall waste paper basket. It mentioned a recent synagogue shooting and she wanted to know what to do—anonymously. I went to the police station right away. I'd been feeling unsettled. As often as I've encountered anti-Semitism, it always shocks and frightens me. I thought I might have to explain blood libel, but I didn't; Lucchesi was both informed and compassionate.


"We see people at their most vulnerable and embarrassing," he says, "and some of what they tell us is protected by privacy laws." Therefore, total transparency is never possible, especially if there is an ongoing investigation. That was the case with the flyer, even after a detective was assigned. Still, I felt reassured.


Are there any similarities between reporters and detectives, protecting sources and informants? Probably, though this would be a long conversation involving lawyers and constitutional experts. What we do have in common, it seems to me,  is the sensation of  being on the outside looking in, both of the community and observing the community. It's not always comfortable. We have to understand our own backstories, life experience, and biases to work effectively.


I thought of a New York City transit cop I once knew who never left his gun behind, even on his days off, and saw perps everywhere. He was on high alert, constantly vigilant, and more than likely suffering from PTSD. How can such a person change without struggle, without re-education, without psychological support? The question is rhetorical, of course. Much needs to be done.  If only I could clone Chief Lucchesi and send him to every town and city in the country to hire, train and retrain a cadre of 21st century guardians. If this were at all possible, police departments everywhere—even the most militaristic, rigid, systemically racist, and terrified of change—would be on the path to evolution and redemption.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter 81

A Spatial Awakening



What is design's role in times of crisis? Communities and individuals come together to aid each other, push for change, and create new spaces, objects, and services. Epidemics—both in the past and in the present—have triggered the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease while exposing systemic gaps and failures. 


The Cooper Hewitt Museum announces "Design & Healing; Creative Responses to Epidemics," December 10, 2021-August 14, 2022    



Michael Murphy, Co-Founder of the not-for-profit firm MASS Design, made it onto 60 Minutes last night. Leslie Stahl was enthralled, and who can blame her? This young, competent, forward thinking, altruistic architect is an inspiration. When Covid hit—not long after his firm completed assignments in Haiti and Rwanda—he  offered the expertise and services of his company to address the structural violence of our most vulnerable built spaces such as hospitals, housing projects, tightly sealed office buildings, and nursing homes, among so many others in the United States, a so-called developed and enlightened country where only the affluent live well. Infrastructure issues? You aren't kidding. Look around at home, close to home, on your way to and from home. Do our shelters heal or hurt? Make a list of your observations. Then try to make some changes, or ask for changes, or vote for changes.


Within minutes of hearing Murphy speak, I became fixated on air flow and the inadequate ventilation in every indoor space I'd been in for the past week. Murphy calls this a "spatial awakening."  I'd gone to vote in the Student Union on the SUNY New Paltz campus, for example, a state university with limited endowment compared to the private universities, and found myself on line in a small, completely enclosed room, no ventilation ducts in sight. And though I was masked and boostered, I was still uncomfortable; this was not a safe space. When one of the poll workers rushed around sanitizing surfaces with a rag and spray, and then offered me a pair of gloves, I wanted to shout, "AIRBORNE!" or, alternatively, "ARE YOU INSANE?"


I remembered my doctor mother constantly opening windows in the winter months and in the summer, too, in air conditioned rooms where air does not circulate well. In medical school, she'd learned about the rampant transmission of both TB and influenza in the hospital wards where wounded WW I soldiers were recovering from their wounds. My mother never forgot that lesson. Windows remained open in our apartment even in the coldest weather. I wore layers and sat close to the steamy radiators running on gallons and gallons of fossil fuel. But I digress. So, here's a question: Why did it take such a long time for the experts to figure out that Covid was airborne? And why didn't the word "ventilation" come up in the conversation right away? Or did it?


Take a look at MASS Design's website, click the photo above. And then take a trip to the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York after December 10 for a special exhibition on creative responses to epidemics. Design has a role in a time of crisis, and so do we, each and every one of us.



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Let Sleeping Bones Lie

The refurbished sign, originally commissioned twenty years ago. In the background, the memorial bench by Craig Shankles. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2021


Let Sleeping Bones Lie



The question that remains in Boston, and across the country, is how we can amend the American story through our monuments without tearing them all down.  


                -W. Ralph Eubanks, "Monuments," in The New Yorker 10/24/21



It's been twenty years since a memorial sign and bench were installed in front of 174 Huguenot Street to commemorate the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, NY, though it's more than likely that the African American Burial Ground is underneath the lawn of 176, and more a burial pit than a burial ground. The then owners of 176 refused to allow ground-penetrating radar and sent their lawyer to a African American Burial Ground Committee meeting to object to further excavation. According to Susan Stessin-Cohn, who was working at Historic Huguenot Street at the time, and is now the New Paltz Town Historian, a bulldozer had turned up human bones. Although it is not against the penal code of New York State to let sleeping bones lie, further investigation might have amplified the story of enslavement in New Paltz and the Mid-Hudson Valley.


Stessin-Cohn remained and remains undaunted. Years after this disappointment, she ceremoniously buried the skull of an African slave excavated from the perimeter of the Deyo House in 1894, and stored away in the Historic Huguenot Street archives ever since. Stessin-Cohn, along with the Board of Historic Huguenot Street, thought it was past time to memorialize at least one slave, thereby honoring all others who had lived and worked as chattel on the street.


The United States from 1619 onwards was a slave society. Until 1827 when slavery was outlawed in New York State, the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers in New Paltz owned slaves: 302 by 1790, which was 13% of the population at that time, according  to the Register of Slaves unearthed at the Historic Huguenot Street archives by Stessin-Cohn and her colleague, Eric Roth.  "If anyone needs restitution, it's us here," Susan Stessin-Cohn has said often over the years.


The remains of indigenous people are protected by Federal law, but the remains of slaves are not. When the bi-partisan African American Burial Grounds legislation pending in Congress is finally signed into law, it will provide both grants and assistance to communities to discover and protect these burial grounds. But it is not a mandate; the aid has to be requested. As for reparations for the descendants of enslaved families, that will take much longer, though it will happen, eventually.


Meanwhile, small communities throughout the United States are reassessing their histories, their narratives, and their extant physical monuments. New Paltz is no exception. Historic Huguenot Street has done a lot of reinterpretation in the three years since I arrived in the town, the SUNY campus has taken down the names of the slave-owning families on their dormitories, and there are plans by the Village of New Paltz, with the assistance of the Historic Preservation Commission, to commemorate the Black history of the town by landmarking  a derelict house on Broadhead Ave., partially built by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man who fought in the Civil War and returned to New Paltz—where  he had been born and raised—to become a contractor and builder. Several of his houses are still standing. He is buried in the (formerly) segregated Rural Cemetery.   


No developer welcomes delay, no owner the stigma of a slave burial ground on their property, which may (or may not) affect the value of that property. Those are the rumblings I've heard as I researched this modest story. But denial and obfuscation will not make the physical remains of the enslaved population in New Paltz disappear. After years of meticulous research Susan Stessin-Cohn believes there are numerous African American burial grounds in New Paltz. With her annual stipend of $1000 and limited time, she does what she can, but there are no slave descendant Black residents that I know of in New Paltz—the result of a still under-reported Jim Crow culture— who will hasten what still needs to be done, or demand it. 


Apart from the students and faculty on the SUNY New Paltz campus, the whiteness of the town, which most consider liberal-progressive, is a story, too. How did this happen?  Where did the emancipated slaves go?  A few built a community on Pencil Hill Road, but they became destitute and left the area, or may have ended up in the Poor House, now covered over by the Ulster County Fairgrounds and Pool, and memorialized with a statue commissioned by Stessin-Cohn.


Down at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. , a committee of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in collaboration with descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, are working to create a contemplative space in a slave burial ground discovered near the parking lot. The burial ground, which holds over forty graves analyzed by ground-penetrating radar, remains undisturbed. New paths and plantings will be installed, as well as seating and signs to "reinvigorate"  and protect the sacred space.


And closer to my home in New Paltz, the Pine Street African American Burial Ground in Kingston, NY is being restored and protected as a sacred space and educational benchmark by the Kingston Land Trust and Scenic Hudson in collaboration with Harambee, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring the community together through celebration and awareness of African-American Heritage. I look forward to participating in—and reporting on—a  similar project in New Paltz in the not too distant future.


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David Sedaris for One Day



That's the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it's so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.


― David Sedaris, "Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002"



Writers observe, notate, wake with sentences in their head, draft stories and revise them until the moment they are submitted for publication. We keep journals, diaries and notebooks. This is our practice, our daily rumination, the warm-up that keeps the writer's muscle supple. New writers don't do this because they haven't practiced doing it. Writing seems easy because we all are taught to write in school, more or less, but writing to a professional level is a skill, a craft, an efflorescing gift, and it requires hard work. Successful writers are hard workers and sometimes unsuccessful and/or as yet unknown writers are also hard workers with ambition, discipline and talent. The difference between them and David Sedaris might be access to the right people and the caste and class into which you and I and they were born and raised. It's a market driven world out there, and a tough one.


I don't know how David Sedaris got started professionally exactly, but he's a a good writer and earned accolades with his first submissions. And then he improved and evolved until he became an iconic best-selling writer.


Another volume of his diaries has just been published and he's on tour. He even landed a gig at a theater in Poughkeepsie, across the river from where I'm living. I didn't make it, but I hear it was a great success. In addition to being a good writer, David Sedaris is funny; he's an entertainer and a satirist similar to Mark Twain. And boy do we need some entertainment right now as we enter the second Covid winter, albeit vaccinated and less fraught. (Mandate: please do not continue reading this post unless you are vaccinated.)


As I've been on a publicity tour myself, I'd have to say that it's tiring, has nothing to do with writing per se, and may or may not sell many books, the primary reason that publishers send writers out on tours in tandem with a social media blitz. It can be fun, but isn't always fun. Like writing itself, it's mostly hard work in between blissful moments.


The Sedaris diary entries often feel scant and leave us wanting more. Why did he decide--or his agent and/or publisher--decide to sell excerpts from his diaries right now? Is it to keep the brand alive while Sedaris is still in his prime? Will he release them to an archive in their entirety when he's on his deathbed, or before?  Do his readers and fans understand that these entries are expurgated and edited, that they explain nothing about the struggle to write a pithy sentence? Is this a David Sedaris joke? When we peruse these diary entries do we access his inner life in ways we hadn't expected? Or is the author a puppet master pulling our strings, hidden behind the scrim of the stage, peeking out at us with a big grin on his face?


That all said, I'd give a gazillion dollars to be David Sedaris for just one day, to have his wry humor, his perspective, his acceptance of human frailty, and tolerance for endless human ignorance, and his confidence in the fundamental goodness of all the people he encounters in his life, more or less. At times, I've tried to write like David Sedaris. In fact, he's looking over my shoulder right now as I emulate his life-affirming spirit.








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When People Tell Me Things




 Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless. 

 Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all. 


-from the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics


From time to time, when a new acquaintance or a complete stranger hears, or learns from me directly, that I am a journalist, they tell me stories or facts I did not know. Suddenly, I am the custodian of information to write about, pass along to the appropriate authorities, or, if the story is too big, feed to a news organization with the resources to investigate. I steer the investigative reporter, or team of reporters, to my sources, who will become their sources. I might continue with some reporting myself, take good notes, and share them. I enjoy behind-the-scenes reporting without the responsibility of crafting a story that has to be fact checked ad infinitum before it is published. I've done my bit and can get back to my own work. The imperative of exposing what I have learned is satisfied. My byline may or may not appear, which is of no consequence; the story has been told.


Some stories and facts are more startling than others and demand instant and dedicated attention. When a friend of a friend heard I was a journalist, she called to tell me she'd found a white supremacist flyer in a wastebasket near the copy machine in her office. For obvious reasons, she wanted to remain anonymous; she was frightened. She took a photo of the flyer and sent it to me. It was a  "blood libel" screed,  a centuries-old allegation that Jews murder Christians to use their blood for ritual purposes. Blood libels have frequently led to violence, including the 2018  Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, which was mentioned in the flyer. I didn't waste any time; I went straight to the police. They sent out an investigator who confirmed that the screed had arrived by fax. The result of the investigation, in its entirety, was then forwarded to the FBI domestic terrorism unit. 


And then there are the times when the person I am talking to or interviewing forgets that I am a journalist. Just this week, a member of the Town Board in the very town where I live, inadvertently revealed a conflict of interest. Maybe she didn't realize the conflict of interest, or didn't know how to tell a reporter that she was talking to me off the record; or maybe she thought that because I live in the town, I would accept the conflict of interest as "normal."


Now what am I supposed to do? Bury the revelation? Not likely.


It's no surprise that some people don't understand a reporter's ethical obligations. We've been laughed at, ignored, doubted, undermined, and laid off during these past difficult false-news years. The local press is dying, which means that there aren't many reporters around in small communities any more. At least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were without one at the beginning of 2020. Thus the proliferation of blogs, such as this one.

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