A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 206

Tulipmania in our living room.

Sunday, April 11

The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions arouse a desire for travel. I’ve been meeting that urge via various virtual outlets: Hulu’s German espionage series Deutschland 86, for instance, has its peripatetic hero attempting to make his way back to East Germany via South Africa, Angola, Libya, and Paris, offering TV viewers spectacular glimpses of Cape Town and the northeastern Sahara with no risk of infection or luggage loss. A very different escape series, My Octopus Teacher, looks at an exotic underwater landscape in a South African kelp forest. Similarly Netflix’ Magical Andes and Guatemala: Heart of the Mayan World dispense otherworldly views of these mountainous lands that make them seem almost uninhabited by humans.

Then there’s the escape to the past, also provided via Deutschland 86 with its reminders of such all-but-forgotten figures as Yuri Andropov (once termed a “sinister KGB biggie” in a New York Post headline), P.W. Botha, Muammar Gaddafi, Olof Palme, and Willy Brandt. The past wasn’t so great, we’re reminded with scenes of Gaddafi’s nihilistic terror campaign that in 1986 targeted a West Berlin nightclub and, later, an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. There’s also The United States vs. Billie Holiday, in which federal agents persecute the extraordinary jazz vocalist, seemingly because she won’t stop singing a song about lynchings in the South.

Like travel shows, cooking shows can offer exotic escape and fall into two categories. Some chefs resemble the guides who go to places you will never go, concocting elaborate desserts or entrees you will never attempt. Others, the food world equivalent of Rick Steves, prepare foods you actually could make (pulled pork, strawberry shortcake) if only you wanted. Of course there’s always the excuse that your kitchen equipment isn’t quite so cool. 

That could be an idea for a show: Rather than showing Julia Collin Davison make a layer cake using a KitchenAid Artisan Series stand mixer, they could have some dork faffing around with an antiquated device like the 1960’s Hamilton Beach mixer you inherited from your mom. He could even come to your retro, Formica-laden kitchen to make it.

But then, that wouldn’t be escape, would it?

Travel books can also substitute for the real thing. I’ve been giving a second read to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, blurbed on the cover as “exciting, boisterous, and bizarre.” It’s all of those things, as well as being inscrutable at some points.

There’s lots of detail about the South American adventures of U.S. outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sometimes, Chatwin strives to tell us what really became of these two. At other points, he shows how their lives have been mythologized, as aging locals recount things the duo are alleged to have done. 

Chatwin describes making his way around Patagonia, from Bahia Blanca to Tierra del Fuego. He often walks for long distances (better him than me). He gets people to let him sleep somewhere on their property. But that doesn’t always pan out—once he makes do with sleeping behind a bush. He meets a range of peculiar folks: expat Scots and Germans, Fuegian Indians, oil engineers and kosher butchers, truck drivers who cultivate the Che Guevara look, even a Russian doctor. He describes stuff that he has read about the area—from Edgar Allen Poe to Charles Darwin to Primaleon of Greece, a book that may have influenced both Magellan and Shakespeare. He tells stories of anarchist uprisings and of the weird practices of a sect of male witches, the Brujeria.

He searches for evidence of dinosaurs like the brontosaurus, a patch of whose skin resided at his grandmother’s house. That, he comes to believe, was actually skin from a giant sloth, or Mylodon, unique to South America. Near the end of the book, Chatwin visits a cave where the Mylodon long ago dwelt.

“The inside was dry as the desert. The ceiling was shaggy with white stalactites and the sides glittered with salt encrustation. Animal tongues had licked the back wall smooth….poking out of a section, I saw some strands of the coarse reddish hair I knew so well.”

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, southern corn pudding, and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Deutschland 86 and two episodes of British policier DCI Banks.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 205

Sir, there’s a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Monday, April 5

The Trump campaign fund-raising shenanigans underscore just who the MAGA crowd are: swindlers of the gullible, easy-pickings Americans who are also preyed upon by the reverse-mortgage pushers, automated-phone-call “health care specialists,” and auto-warranty fixers.

Today’s headlines: In the final days before the election, the Trump fund-raising machine ensnared thousands of small-money donors into making automatic, recurring donations, using mailers with pre-checked boxes reading “let’s make this a monthly recurring donation.” A second pre-checked box—the “money bomb”—prompted them to make recurring donations on a weekly basis. Some contributors were unwittingly making as many as half a dozen donations in 30 days.

Many donors didn’t realize they’d been hoodwinked until they received their bank statements or credit card bills.

The Sergeant Bilko tactic has led to an avalanche of fraud complaints—and $122.7 million in compelled refunds. Overall, the Trump fundraising machine was made to refund 10.7 percent of the money it raised via the WinRed digital operation in 2020.

Even money that had to be refunded worked in the campaign’s favor, amounting to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.

Moreover, the shady fund-raising tactics continued well after the election as part of Trump’s “stop the steal” racket.

Not all of the dough went to Trump. WinRed, it turns out, is a for-profit operation that keeps 30 cents of every donation, plus 3.8 percent of the amount given. It even made money off of donations that were refunded, keeping the 30-cent donation fees.

Fund-raising in general is a snake pit. We receive call after telephone call from police outfits hoping that you’ll be intimidated into giving to their law-and-order cause. They’ll even come right out and ask you to donate to their union!

Nor are the Trump tactics unique: One digital-marketing expert told The New York Times that the techniques were a classic of the “deceptive design” genre. If they are “classic,” that means that other fund-raisers, including those for “charities” or Democrats, have also used the pre-checked box gambit.

There’s a sucker born every minute. 

P.T. Barnum didn’t actually say that—maybe it was Harold Hill of The Music Man.  Anyhow, Trump’s right, at least in part: what a bunch of losers. Millions want to be conned. Not only do they give away their votes to Mr. Flim-Flam, they’ll give him their pension money, too.

Dinner: avgolemono soup and an avocado and orange salad.

Entertainment: It seems only appropriate that we should watch the Netflix drama I Care A Lot, in which a swindler of the elderly gets her comeuppance, at least for a while.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 204

Spring!

Tuesday, March 30

Yesterday I got the car’s oil changed, even though it has traveled only 2,000 miles since the last oil change in the summer. (With the synthetic oil now used, one needs to change the oil only every 6,000 miles.)

On Sunday, I cooked a not-so-difficult but very time-consuming ropa vieja, a Latin recipe that involves  “flank steak braised with vegetables and aromatics until it shreds into strands.” That lasts for a while, so we’ll have more of it tonight.

This morning, I took steps to formally recognize spring: I moved both the heavy sack of snow-melting rock salt and the snow shovel to the basement. Then I went so far as to carry the Weber charcoal grill back upstairs. These days, it stays light long enough to allow grilling of chops for the evening meal. Next week, maybe.

Anticipating reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, I recently finished his earlier classic The Remains of the Day. Such an odd book, but I suppose this close examination of the classic figure of the English butler allowed the author to probe elements of the national personality and to consider the state of the nation in the immediate post-World War II years. Stevens is, of course, an obsessive personality fixated on addressing the every need of his “gentleman.” His self-sacrifice takes a toll not only upon himself but also on others who care about him, notably the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

I found one small scene particularly penetrating. While his boss is away on a trip to America, Stevens borrows the man’s automobile for a tour of the English countryside, as the master has encouraged him to do. Normally so in command of every aspect of his surroundings at Darlington Hall, Stevens makes a couple of thoughtless blunders involving the car. At one point, he runs out of gas—maybe he never realized that he’d have to add more. In any case, he is far from any town and wanders a bit through muddy fields before finding a bed for the night at the home of an accommodating farmer. 

Then, during a simple dinner of broth and crusty bread, more and more of the farmer’s neighbors just happen to drop by. The whole village seems to be aware of Stevens’ “mishap,” and given that very little happens in the village of Moscombe, many are hugely curious to take a look at this exotic visitor. Following some conversation about the concept of dignity, the rights of Englishmen, wartime sacrifices, and speculation that the imposing Stevens might just be a member of Parliament, he’s asked if he has ever met Mr. Churchill. Yes, Stevens admits, Churchill did come to the house on a number of occasions. The locals are suitably impressed—although that was never the effect that Stevens intended.

I think that with this scene, the author is reminding us that as late as the mid-1950s there were very isolated pockets within England. “We can go year in and year out and never even lay eyes on a real gentleman,” says one of the villagers. Radio sets were still quite expensive, and in many places home visitations or an evening at the pub were how people chose to spend their leisure hours.

Stevens is able to clear up matters a bit the next morning, when the local doctor gives him a lift back to his motorcar. The physician susses out that Stevens must be “a manservant of some sort,” then allows that Stevens is “a pretty impressive specimen” whom the locals could easily take for “at least a lord or a duke.” But Stevens himself has no such illusions, and recalls one instance in which his boss and some aristocratic pals put Stevens in his place with a number of difficult questions about the economy and foreign affairs. There will always be an England, it seems, and probably always a rigidly stratified class system in the green and pleasant land.

Dinner: leftover ropa vieja accompanied by pasta with goat cheese and a green salad.

Entertainment: We are depleting the streaming video offerings. So we’ll give a try with Hulu’s Out of Blue and perhaps old episodes of the Idris Elba policier Luther. Then there’s the heartwarming Netflix reality show Dogs, in which canines demonstrate their usefulness on a variety of fronts.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 203

Tuesday, March 23

Things to worry about after you’ve gotten your two anti-COVID-19 shots (including some things I simply don’t understand):

  • Officials are urging people to get vaccinated before any more new coronavirus variants emerge. Why? How effective will the existing vaccines be in warding off new strains? Or is the idea that you need to ward off the existing strain of COVID-19 before it morphs into a new strain, using your body as a host?
  • I have participated in NO zoom calls—none. Am I now hopelessly antiquated?
  • My brain is flooded with memories from the past. I dream about BusinessWeek colleagues and scenes that never took place. I daydream about embarrassing moments, some of which took place when I was in junior high school. Why?
  • I think about my mother, my uncles and cousins, my old friends all the time. What?
  • There are the ever-present anxieties about death. How much longer do we have on Earth? Isn’t true old age worse than death?
  • Things to fix at the house: a leak in the bathroom ceiling that shows up when it rains hard; stuff in the basement to throw out and insulation to be fixed; driveway pebbles to be replaced.
  • Do I need to get the car’s oil changed even though it has traveled only a little over a thousand miles since the last oil change?
  • Other health anxieties too gruesome to list
  • The squirrels are eating the tulip shoots as soon as they come up in the yard or planters outside? What can be done?
  • I’ve finished reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Viet Cong spy novel, The Sympathizer. Should I try to get his sequel, The Committed—or maybe Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara and the Sun?

Dinner: black beans and rice and a green salad

Entertainment: one episode of the German show Anatomy of Evil on Mhz and episodes of season three of Fargo.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 202

Zero Irving–and zero P.C. Richards.

Wednesday, March 17

After a week’s stay in New York City, we’ve returned to East Hampton. We’re each relieved to have gotten our two anti-COVID vaccinations and to be back on Long Island.

The city just isn’t what it was—and it may never again resemble its old self. The predominant motifs are the same as in September: empty storefronts, a much reduced population (at least the number that come out of hiding is reduced), and even the grime seems, well, merely grimy and lacking in its former glamour. 

In hopes of continuing in business, over the past year many restaurants erected out-of-door dining spaces on the sidewalks or out in the streets. Now, in many cases the restaurants have closed down and the plywood-and-plastic sheeting, outdoor dining spaces remain. Boulevards of broken dreams, indeed. 

If you leave your apartment to run an errand, you’re not sure whether a shop that you intend to visit will still be functioning. Fortunately, three key places were still operating: Porto Rico Importing’s coffee-bean shop on St. Mark’s Place; the Kalustyan’s spice emporium on the so-called Curry Hill stretch of Lexington Ave. near 28th Street; and a little organic foods store on 3rd Avenue at 16th St., where I got the gluten flour we need for bread-making. Also, the Strand bookstore is still open and busy. Without it, New York would simply be unimaginable.

Somehow, the city remains plenty noisy. This may seem weird, but I was looking forward to sleeping on our very comfortable mattress and foam-and-gel pillows in the city. Instead, I have apparently gotten too used to the quiet of far Long Island and was disturbed by the sirens, horns, truck noise, and middle-of-the-night yelling on 14th Street. The loonies haven’t departed, it seems.

Incongruously—and probably pointlessly—there’s still plenty of construction going on in Manhattan. The existing buildings, particularly office structures but residences too, are at least half empty. But the construction continues. The onetime site of a two-story P.C. Richards appliance store now features a huge high-rise with the odd monicker of Zero Irving Place. (Irving dead-ends at 14th Street, just where the building now sits.) According to the building’s bullish website, Zero Irving is an “ecosystem ideally engineered to foster growth, flexibility, productivity, and the evolution of new ideas in Manhattan’s ultimate live/work neighborhood.” We’ll see if anyone wants to live/work there anytime soon.

I passed the Strand while on the way to the bank and, with a measure of trepidation, ventured inside. There, I snagged a copy of a book whose glowing reviews have intrigued me: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a spy story, coming-of-age tale, and political drama all about a Viet Cong undercover agent’s life during the Communist takeover of South Vietnam and his migration to the U.S.A. with other Vietnamese refugees. Here, he’s supposed to keep an eye on the exiles, who of course scheme to return to their Asian home and resurrect their anti-Communist regime. In the interim, they work as cab drivers, liquor store proprietors, and clerks at universities. I’m racing through the 385-page book, anticipating getting to the sequel, The Committed, which has just been published in hardback.

Dinner: a frozen Amy’s pizza and a green salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of the second season of Fargo and an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 201

Sunday, March 14

Trump, in his chaotic way, built on the anti-government, anti-institutional sentiment that had a takeoff moment in the 1980s during the terms of Ronald Reagan. Joe Biden, meanwhile, clearly stands for a return to the Big Institution can-do approach that had its defining moments under the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. 

Biden stated this openly in his March 11 address to the nation. 

Early on, he noted, “We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. It’s us, all of us.” Well O.K., it’s fine to appeal to everyone to get on board. 

But more telling and significant was his salute to two big drugmakers, Johnson & Johnson and Merck, for setting aside their capitalist rivalry and coming together in a temporary alliance to defeat COVID-19. “These two companies, competitors, have come together for the good of the nation, and they should be applauded for it. It’s truly a national effort, just like we saw during World War II.”

This is the approach that helped to end both the Great Depression and the threat posed by Germany-Japan during the 1940s. As many World War II chroniclers have noted, the countries that won that war were the countries that had the biggest factories. 

In the 1930s, government became a major employer, notably in such efforts as the public-works oriented Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the war years, private companies such as Ford and DuPont turned from making consumer goods to the production of tanks and munitions.

And although the New Deal had centralized some of the economy, there were those who felt it hadn’t gone far enough: A June 22, 1940 issue of Business Week argued that Germany had a mighty advantage with its statewide industrial coordination, otherwise known as a command economy. “To meet a victorious Hitler in an arms race or trade war we may have to adopt some of the totalitarian ways of doing things,” announced that magazine.  Certain U.S. notions about the rights of private property owners and of individual liberty could very well have to go, Business Week added.

But the application of overwhelming institutional power doesn’t work for everything. It didn’t work to defeat the popular forces in Vietnam. 

And the great vulnerability of this approach is that it does not inevitably enlist the great energy, enthusiasm, and talent of the masses. 

Can Biden’s recreation of the Welfare State—repudiated by presidents of recent decades especially Reagan and Clinton but also George Herbert Walker Bush and Barack Obama—truly inspire the American populace? It had better. Or we can expect more boneheaded, misdirected scenes such as the Trump mob explosion of January 6.

Dinner: Cold noodles and sesame sauce and a green salad.

Entertainment: More of season two of Fargo on Hulu.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 200

Thursday, March 11

We are back in NYC, and tomorrow we’ll be going to get our second dose of the Pfizer anti-COVID-19 vaccine. I am now more apprehensive about post-pandemic life than I am about getting the sickness. And I doubt that I am alone in this: Today’s Times compared life in contemporary Manhattan to that in the classic dystopian sci-fi flick Blade Runner

Just what is to come ultimately is hard to imagine.

Earlier this week, the CDC issued guidelines saying “fully vaccinated Americans can gather indoors in private homes in small groups with other fully vaccinated people, without masks or distancing. They can gather with unvaccinated people in a private home without masks or distancing so long as the unvaccinated occupy a single household and all members are at low risk for developing severe disease should they contract the virus.” 

Whew. Does everybody have to sign a waiver?

And just who will feel safe doing this? I for one am not rushing to go out to restaurants or to the homes of the unvaccinated—or even the homes of the vaccinated.

Much will depend, I suspect, on just how others behave. At first at least, I think I will view public gatherings with great trepidation. It’ll take a while to get used to seeing people in groups.

The fact that Republicans have politicized mask-wearing and other sensible behavior will also make anti-GOPers reluctant to adopt any change. Going anywhere without a mask will seem like wearing a Trump button.

Dinner: lentil soup, a green salad, and Persian rice pudding.

Entertainment: More episodes of Fargo on Hulu, and more episodes of Call My Agent! on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2012–chapter 199

A blast from the recent past: Fox fake news from only one year back.

Saturday, March 6

A study of my blog posts from a year back, when the epidemic and lockdown measures were somewhat new, offers a number of quaint revelations. 

As Emily and I began our East Hampton exile from frightening New York City, the “novel coronavirus” as it was commonly called had spread to two-thirds of U.S. states, with nearly 600 reported cases and close to 20 deaths. But based on what was happening elsewhere on Earth, much worse was expected. Thousands of employees were being told to work from home, schools were shuttered, conferences and mass celebrations (SXSW) had been canceled. The governor of New York had declared a State of Emergency.

The Trump White House was behaving in a typically unhinged fashion. Declaring the virus to be a “hoax,” it also began backing a variety of wildly inappropriate measures, including federal aid to oil-shale companies hit by the virus/market shocks. Vice President Mike Pence announced he was seeking guidance via prayer.

In Russia, Putin pushed legislation that would allow him to serve for an additional two six-year terms when his tenure expired in 2024. 

The Bank of England cut its rates to the lowest in history. But London’s mayor and the country’s P.M., Boris Johnson, eschewed any lockdown, instead doing nothing in the pursuit of “herd immunity.” A British teen was sent home from school for selling hits of hand sanitizer for 50p per squirt. 

By mid-March, conditions in Italy were frightening, with 15,000 reported cases and 1,000 deaths.

The sort of emergency measures arranged by U.S. pols shows how unimpressed they were by the whole thing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced a deal—immediately passed by the House but deferred by the Senate as its members departed for a week’s vacation—that included enhanced unemployment benefits, free virus testing, and additional funds for food assistance and Medicaid. The pact allowed for two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family and medical leave.

Huge lines formed in and around large chain-store outlets. Store shelves emptied of all kinds of goods—canned food, hand sanitizer, cold medicines, and especially toilet paper.

But New York City’s mayor Bill DeBlasio resisted pressure to close the city schools. Lacking other child-care options, health care workers would stay away from work, he said. What’s more, the student population included some 114,000 homeless kids. Where would they go?

Appearing before a backdrop that read “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam,” Fox News presenter Trish Regan accused Democrats of creating “mass hysteria to encourage a market sell-off” and sowing fear about the virus “to demonize and destroy the president.”

In mid-March, the Times reported over 132,000 people had been infected across the planet. Spain anticipated 10,000 cases in the coming week, while Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia closed their borders to outsiders.

Profiteers began pursuing the tackiest measures imaginable. In Tennessee, two brothers acquired some 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer from various small regional stores, then offered them on Amazon for up to $70 each. 

On March 16, the stock market fell by 10%. But sales of guns and marijuana soared.

And that was only the beginning.

Dinner: turkey meatloaf, green beans, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of Fargo on Hulu and of Call My Agent! on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 198

Thursday, March 4

Emily stirred herself early today and called Walgreens at 7:30 a.m. Her mission: to find out if we could move our vaccine appointments up a week—in order to accord with the recommended interval of three weeks between Pfizer shots—and if not, to see if the First Avenue location, where we are scheduled to go on March 12, will in fact have the Pfizer vaccine. Back in February that branch only had Moderna.

She called the Walgreens head office and—hooray!—actually got a human on the phone, something she spent two-and-a-half fruitless hours trying to do the day before. However—boo! The human in this case was, Emily later reported, the most unhelpful person she’s ever encountered in such a situation.

Could we move up the appointment? Only if we cancelled the existing appointment. “Do you want me to cancel your existing appointment?”

The representative said she’d never heard that the recommended interval between the two Pfizer shots was three weeks as opposed to four. She had handled many calls, she said, and no one else had raised the idea that they’d been scheduled for one of each vaccine.

Will the First Avenue branch actually have the Pfizer vaccine? The customer service rep said she could find that out only by canceling our existing appointment.

So we gained nothing. My current thinking is that we should go back to NYC next Wednesday and immediately go in person to the First Avenue branch of Walgreens to see if they have the Pfizer vaccine. It seems they may not know in advance just what vaccines are being delivered.

(Later in the day, a visit to the Walgreens website showed the First Avenue location as having only the Pfizer vaccine. So, go figure.)

You can see that we worry about all of this almost constantly. Try not to think about it for a while, and in an hour or so, with little else of importance on your mind, your thoughts drift back to the matter of the vaccinations.

The stony indifference, abject profit-seeking, and downright cruelty exhibited in the current case has prompted a memory from my childhood. I always dreaded trips to the pediatrician when I was a child. If you went there with a mere cold, they’d give you a penicillin shot—even though we now know that would have had no effect on a cold. But, hell, they got paid for giving the shot. 

And most punishing of all, the shot-giver was a beefy woman with the scarier-than-Ratched name of Miss Bledsoe!

You could cry—you could shout and scream—but you could not defeat Miss Bledsoe and her five-inch needles destined to put a sanguinary dent into your backside.

Tonight’s dinner: BLT sandwiches, leftover penne with asparagus, and a pear salad.

Entertainment: more of the advertising-rich Hulu’s suspenseful and insightful Apple Tree Yard and of Netflix’ French comedy Call My Agent!

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 197

Tuesday, March 2

March has arrived, and the first day of spring is only two-and-a-half weeks off.

So in honor of that thought, tonight we will have a wonderful, spring-ish, and couldn’t-be-simpler repast: steamed asparagus topped with sunny-side-up eggs, accompanied by a simple Greek salad.

When we order asparagus from Stop & Shop, they always give us lots—which means there will be more for tomorrow night. Then, I will make a new but also very simple recipe: penne with ricotta and asparagus. You just cook your asparagus, then chill it—then combine it with ricotta, parmesan, olive oil, and penne. Ecco—va bene.

Emily is searching around online, perusing her Facebook pals’ COVID information group and trying to figure out the best approach for securing our next round of shots. Should we call Walgreens corporate office? Or the First Avenue location where we are scheduled to get the next round on March 12—the place that once told us they had only the Moderna vaccine, not the Pfizer one that we need?

Tonight’s entertainment: having subscribed to Hulu in order to see two Golden Globes winners, Nomadland and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, we’re finding that there could be lots more there worth watching. So, we’ll try the Emily Watson thriller Apple Tree Yard and the TV version of Fargo, followed by our now-traditional nightcap of Netflix’ Call My Agent!