A Journal of the Plague Year 2020

by HardyGreen on March 18, 2020

On March 5, Emily and I fled New York City for our East Hampton cottage, our car loaded with canned goods, cold remedies, and a few clothes. How long will we stay? We are in a self-quarantine, fleeing the spreading COVID-19, the China-originating coronavirus that threatens humanity across the planet. By March 9, the novel virus had spread to two-thirds of U.S. states, with nearly 600 cases and close to 20 deaths. Frightening accounts of passengers trapped aboard infected cruise ships and of Draconian lock-downs in China and Italy crowd out stories about the Democratic presidential race. Thousands of employees are being told to work from home, schools are shuttered, conferences and mass celebrations (SXSW) have been canceled. The governor of New York has declared a State of Emergency.

In many previous epidemics, worried populations had limited information about the sickness, depending largely upon gossip. Now, we are both connected to the internet and we play an informal game of “top this”: I read her a headline about the latest fatalities in Iran, she counters with a tidbit about Trump-administration ignorance and ineptitude. “Mike Pence presided over an AIDS epidemic in Indiana, where he delayed a needle-exchange program saying he had to pray on the issue before making a decision,” she says.

Attendees at a recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference where there was an infected participant are outing each other, compiling McCarthy-like lists. Was Betsy Devos in the same room as Mr. X?

(It will later be revealed that the infected attendee had purchased a $5,750 “gold” package granting him access to backstage reception rooms where members of Congress and other high-profile figures mingled.)

Stock indices are in free fall. Oil prices drop 20% and the Dow by 2,000 points.

Here, Emily and I have very limited physical contact with the outside population. Since the only germs present are germs we brought with us, I’m not sure we must practice the furious hand-washing and avoidance of face-touching that health authorities advocate. How long can the virus linger on tomato sauce cans or containers of Purell? Nine days? Dunno.

Emily reads me a tweet suggesting that they’ve halted trading on the stock market. “I’m not sure that’s true, but that’s what this tweet says,” she adds. In spite of the internet, uncertainty reigns.

Inevitably, that has stoked activity on the part of digital mischief-makers and profiteers. Rumors circulate that COVID-19 was cooked-up in a lab in China with the intent of undermining the government in Taiwan. One “miracle mineral solution” flacked on Facebook and Twitter is “the same as drinking bleach,” according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Like the Trump Administration, officials in previous outbreaks have begun by downplaying the seriousness of the illness. In Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague, the Prefect initially institutes woefully inadequate regulations and posts Panglossian communiques. Even as springtime flowers proliferate, hospital wards fill to overflowing and new facilities are required.

Trump, meanwhile, joins the Internet worrywarts with his own outbursts of disinformation. Apparently, the whole thing is a “hoax.” “Anyone who wants a test can get a test,” he has falsely preached. He has called the World Health Organization’s estimated fatality rate of 3.4%  “a false number,” adding that “my hunch” is that it will be under 1%.

And as usual, Trump praises himself: “I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”

Only four days into our self-imposed exile, dietary displeasure looms. Last night we split a can of Progresso vegetarian soup, supplemented by small green salads and baked potatoes. The Nido Purificada—condensed milk—seems ok, and I’m prepared to eat boxed Kraft macaroni & cheese. Remember when you had that as a child and actually liked it? But fresh veggies are a problem, and a trip to IGA in Amagansett seems in order to get lettuce, celery, and other produce. (We ended up spending $105.99, thanks to such necessities as Destrooper pure butter almond thins, a tub of sour cream, and one package containing 24 rolls of Cottonelle toilet tissue.)

Dinner: spaghetti & homemade meatballs, salad.

Entertainment: a streaming video of Elaine May’s miserable, frenetic 1976 buddy flick Mikey and Nicky (like watching “Night at the Improv” featuring the pointless antics of two amphetamine-addled yobs) and a pretty good episode of the BBC TV show MI-5.

Le manoir de mes reves.

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 111

by HardyGreen on July 10, 2020

A school in Cuba: Che, not Ivanhoe

Thursday, July 9

The debate over public school reopening seems to be missing one thing: Kids really do learn a lot on their own. 

Maybe what they learn won’t comply with the official requirements, but kids will continue to learn stuff—and be interested in learning—without any bullying from credentialed teachers or school-board commisars. They get information from their friends. They learn everything from self-discipline to cooking and cleanliness from their parents. If parents are bad role models…well there’s little schools can do to overcome that. 

Home-schooled kids “miss out on learning gains in reading and math relative to in-class instruction,” says Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

Baloney. They miss out on bullying, boredom, snobbery, and enforced conformism.

My own experience probably demonstrates little more than personal frustration. Nevertheless, I must say that I already knew how to read when I went to first grade. They gave me a little, unofficial test, and at age 6, I could read virtually everything in the sixth-grade reader; the only word I didn’t know was “Maria.”

But they decided I shouldn’t “skip” any grades. Consequently, for several years I sat and listened as other students attempted to read out loud, stumbling over words or just sitting for lengthy, agonizing periods of silence.

Did this benefit me or other already-advanced kids? I was supposed to gain some maturity or socialization from being around others my age—but I remained hugely immature and shy.

Up until college, it was much the same. In high school, I learned a lot of math and a little biology—most of which I’ve long ago forgotten. The history classes were almost all taught by football coaches—it seems they needed lots of those. I remember one coach reading the textbook aloud to us—that was his idea of a lecture. As he read, students misbehaved, throwing spitballs or wads of chewing gum at each other. Others dawdled, drawing airplanes with firing machine guns rather than taking notes. Some kids slept.

Another memory is of a study hall, presided over by yet another football coach. He amused himself by digging in his ears with his keys. Then, he’d carefully examine whatever he had managed to remove. Occasionally, he’d pipe up and utter some word of criticism at a perceived miscreant. 

There was compulsory attendance at pep rallies held in the gym. Memphis Central High School’s fight song was performed to the tune of “On Wisconsin”—or was it the Notre Dame Victory March? I guess there were no original melodies in the hometown of Elvis.

Then there was ROTC, or Rot-C as we called the paramilitary marching around while wearing army-surplus duds and toting disabled, WWII-era rifles. What did we learn there? Obedience? That was already a theme in almost all other classes.

There was really only one class I liked—senior English. There, we read the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (And, famously, 40% of the students at my school were Jewish.) I should note that Ivanhoe did have virtues—it celebrated the Che Guevara-like Robin Hood.

Mrs. Davies, the English teacher, made it known that she disapproved of a group of students who, on their own, were reading J.D. Salinger and admiring Bob Dylan. Today, both figures are on the approved list, I gather. Other authors and popular musicians have to bear the load of official disapproval. They cry all the way to the bank.

Dinner: leftover grilled vegetables, Capriccio salad.

Entertainment: Our faulty Internet connection won’t link to Britbox, so two episodes of Netflix’ The Stranger.

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 110

July 9, 2020

Wednesday, July 8 Who will be memorialized in Trump’s “National Garden of American Heroes”? And even more importantly, just how big and prominent will Trump’s statue of himself be? Last Friday, Trump issued an executive order concerning his planned memorial park, noting that there will be statues of several presidents and others including Davy Crockett, […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 109

July 6, 2020

Monday, July 6 I just returned from taking the car to the Subaru dealer. It’s due for an oil change and NY State Inspection, and I received a letter from Subaru headquarters of a parts recall: It seems the fuel pump must be replaced.  Two sentences worthy of General Jack D. Ripper inform me that  […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 108

July 4, 2020

Friday, July 3 Independent journalist I.F. Stone called them “the Haunted Fifties.” True enough, the decade at the middle of the 20th century was haunted by the bruising previous eras of The Great Depression and World War II.  The 1950s, of course, were a time when Americans longed for calm, for prosperity, and to get […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 107

July 2, 2020

Wednesday, July 1 More frightening stats that have come to my attention:  The number of new cases in the United States has shot up by 80 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. More than 48,000 coronavirus cases were announced across the United States on Tuesday, the most of […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 106

July 1, 2020

Tuesday, June 30 States that had eased off of the lockdown are reimposing restrictions. In the U.S., the pandemic appears to be reasserting itself, and this has us pondering what the months ahead hold.  On June 29, Suffolk County reported its first 24-hour period without a COVID-19 death since June 12. Meanwhile, there were 46 […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 105

June 30, 2020

Monday, June 29 Having wondered about how our Manhattan building is coping, I began looking for visions of how cities should adapt to a pandemic-heavy future. It turns out there’s some cogitation going on—although much is still at the head-scratching stage. As you might expect, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is quite involved. The MIT […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 104

June 29, 2020

Sunday, June 28 Life back in our Manhattan apartment building must seem right out of dystopian science fiction. Two New York Times articles today highlight the issues. One article says that for two crucial months this past winter, scientists regularly underestimated the impact of symptomless carriers. “Models using data from Hong Kong, Singapore, and China […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 103

June 28, 2020

Saturday, June 27 “ ‘Justifiable homicide,’ ” said Allwright. “How do you say that in Swedish?” “It’s untranslatable,” said Martin Beck. “There is no such concept,” Kollberg said. “You’re wrong about that,” Allwright said, and laughed. “They’ve got it in the States, believe you me. Just let a policeman shoot somebody, and it’s always ‘justifiable […]

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A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 102

June 26, 2020

Thursday, June 25 In Mexico during the 1980s, I encountered other travelers from a variety of places—England, New Orleans, you name it. Among them were two women who seemed a bit withdrawn, prickly, even unfriendly. They spoke English, but with an accent that I couldn’t easily place. After a while it came out: They were […]

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