A poem from One Nation Taken Out of Another.



The songs you liked are now ironic –
The slope of age is monotonic.
A creature needs her gin and tonic
To ascertain if she’s bionic:

Thereafter, calmed to an irenic
Trance (Synthetic? Analytic?)
You realize ages are syncretic.
Decades are no mere static metric

But drive – in toto – an organic
Plunge, more Virgil than Titanic.

Why then does your mirror panic?

The life of Chasidim, Jews living according to strict religious precepts within the confines of a separatist society, is fascinating because it is different from most of our lives. Some might imagine that most under such constraints are happy enough to stay there—or else they would leave, wouldn’t they? Thinking more carefully, we remind ourselves that there are constraints we don’t know about. And some of them do leave. How do they make that decision? Two recent books explore departures from the Orthodox path, answering two different questions – what is their experience like in general, and what does the story of one ex-Orthodox Jew tell us in particular?allwhogo-200x300

More at Killing the Buddha, which printed my review of books by Lynn Davidman and Shulem Deen on the ex-Orthodox.

Some new poems of mine were published in the journal The Legendary. Here they are below.


I wake up with a craving for the whole damn diamond
yet scrabble for shards.

Light shatters on my grayish rainment.

Every hour is my friend:
I name them after beetles.

Everything Has a Hole In It

Everything has a hole in it
and all the holes line up
a telescope of defect
a tube of not-enough
to see right through to error
or what might come to pass
You try to catch the football
and whump right on your ass
remember that you never
should play a sport at all.
Passivity’s your call.
This should have been foreseen:
mene, tekel, ufarsin.
So how can we repair?
What thoughts can we select
Already on the stair
Away from the repast
Full of insult and eclairs?
There is a lining up of holes.
There is a defect-rich alignment.
This they did not teach in school.
You give yourself this one assignment.


In the membrane of my heart
curls a cardiac worm,
uncorking bloodflow’s spurt
as current squirms.

“That’s not how these things work!
There IS no ‘cardiac worm’!”
But my muscle is verrucous.
And sensations: vermiform.

What It’s Like

Myths bloom among mistakes.
A voyage of secrets:
along the routes of truth
you hear real screams.

Put down your pencil. People are dying
on the artists’ street.
What’s the point of rhyme
when your body doesn’t know what’s worse:

instant fire, or aimlessness
in endless hallways.
The poetic license expires.

Put down your pencil. You manage
instant sympathy.
You feel in your entrails
the hand of annihilation.

A missile eliminates
A bomb shatters you.

You are now expert in possible demises
The end of a straw-packed trunk of dreams

What’s life like
in death’s developments?


Today marks the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and to commemorate it I’ll repost a poem I wrote 4 years ago (originally published here).



She was a woman worth a certain amount

to her family: a pension or lump sum.

All I could say was this is human

when I saw her on the street, red

gathered at what must have been her neck. Count

the holes in my body — she faced me: I retched — some

of which I made when jumping. What man

reckons what the living owe the dead?

I didn’t kill you. My every liberal part

aches for the laborer, the immigrant,

the seamstress whose callused finger bled.

I’m killed and rise up daily. My scalded heart

fibrillates, a sack of worker ants.

My words in your mouth are beit-din’s lead.

Scott is sitting in the corner of the kitchen, feeding baby Antonina freshly pumped breastmilk since I am busy cooking. His voice is a little raspy and his hands are clumsy because he is on day 2 of Folfox cycle #6.

More about an unexpected juxtaposition here.

The Ten Commandments of Sensible Health

My mother was a domestic worker. My father worked for Bethl’m Steel. Neither of them had any insurance. He died and they got insurance. Three thousand dollars. Eighty eight dollars a month for her and the kids. She didn’t get any Social Security because of who she worked for. Three kids! Imagine if they had gotten sick. They never got sick. We never got sick! I think everyone should get health insurance. Why don’t they want them to get health insurance?”Bethlehem Steel Mill

“They don’t like poor people.”

“It’s not their fault! I think everyone should have it.”

“I saw Selma. It was a great movie. I had four kids then. I couldn’t get up and go to protests. I saw Obama when he spoke to our church group. I didn’t think he was going to be president. I never thought a black man could be president.”

Uncertainty is a common experience in health care. For an upcoming book and ongoing research project, I want to be in contact with patients, families, and caregivers to learn their strategies for approaching, dealing with, and understanding such uncertainty.L0074969 All in search of health should wear Harness'

For example, Ms. A. has back pain unaccompanied by underlying serious disease. She has no way of knowing whether it will go away in weeks, months, or not at all. She wants an MRI, which accepted evidence indicates will neither aid in treating her pain nor reassure her.

On the one hand, both she and the healthcare provider would like to do “something” as a sign of care; on the other hand, we want to harm neither Ms. A (with tests/procedures that won’t work), nor society (afflicted by a health care system which costs too much, delivers poor care in comparison to other systems, and treats people unequally).

There are many scenarios in which treatment is pursued despite evidence showing it does not work more than placebo. For example, hormone treatment in the patient with local (not metastatic) prostate cancer; repeated CT scans for thyroid nodules without symptoms; treatment of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), mammograms in a patient without significant family history more often than every two years.

How do you as a patient, family member, or caregiver seek the best care in such a situation, where things are uncertain and more tests/procedures might not work? What strategies do you use? What should healthcare providers do? Please be in touch with me to help guide this work. zberger1 at jhmi dot edu

See the presentation below for another depiction of the problem.

How Do You Deal With Uncertainty In Healthcare? from Zackary Berger


This week, I covered for one of the chief residents. I was the attending physician for about 25 patients in the hospital during the space of a few days. On one of those days, I still had scheduled my regular outpatient clinic; the entire day became a way to experience the contradictions inherent in the practice of medicine, crossing the street again and again between the hospital and my clinic like a shuttle on a loom.

How many contradictions, or rather, pairings that we see as contradictions, confronted me with each patient I saw, comparing in my mind the medicine I practice every day in clinic with the kind of health care delivered in our hospitals!images

  • Providing each person the care that works for her uniquely, while uniformly assuring best practices for safety to hundreds of patients at a time.
    Getting the tests and treatments that are needed as fast as possible, while deliberating appropriately on the evidence base of every intervention.
    Treating pain — but acknowledging the dangers of opiate addiction.
    Enabling the patient to make decisions, while recognizing they need the support of a treatment team in an alienating and scary environment.
    Discharging as soon as medically possible, while aiding the patient in their convalescence.
    Hewing to principles of safety and organizational efficiency, while being unafraid to venture out of the box when changed situations demand it.

How can we treat patients while on the very knife-edge of these contradictions? Treating both inpatients and outpatients makes me more sensitive to the edge, but I’m not sure I can dance any better….yet.