A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 188

A street scene in Dublin. Photo by Paul Joyce.

Wednesday, January 20

On the final full day of Trump’s term, there was much uneasy rejoicing online—like the emotions of a child who is happy that Christmas has arrived yet anxious that there could be nasty surprises waiting under the tree. There was also worry that among the 25,000 troops gathered to protect the city during Biden’s inauguration, there might be some closet seditionists. 

A photo much exhibited on Twitter purported to show how future assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, attended Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, standing very close indeed to the new president.

The Associated Press held that a dozen National Guard members had been removed from the inauguration security mission after discovery that they had right-wing militia ties or had expressed extremist views online.

But on the big day, nothing startling happened. There were the usual dull speeches, calls for unity, and appearances of ex-presidents and Republican grandees, almost as if no one had recently said or done anything really dishonorable. McConnell was busy repackaging himself as a never-Trumper.

Change of subject please. 

A new discovery to me is the writing of John Banville, whose memoir of Dublin, Time Pieces, is endlessly quotable, particularly now when I and so many others seem to be turning to the past for relief from the present. As he views places he visited as a child, he notes “in a sense childhood never ends, but exists in us not merely as a memory or complex of memories, but as an essential part of what we intrinsically are.” It was as children that we first apprehended the world as mystery; “the process of growing up is, sadly, a process of turning the mysterious into the mundane.” 

We long for an end to the Trump era, for it to recede into the past. Banville, though, asks: “When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?” And as Faulkner fans will quickly interject, the past is never dead—it isn’t even past.

Before you know it, though, death—or a slide into mere triviality—will draw a line under the age. MAGA man’s time on earth cannot extend much longer, his obesity and bad habits will soonish take their toll. Perhaps he’ll tumble off of his golf cart into a Loch. 

Dinner: cornbread tamale pie and an avocado, radish, and arugula salad.

Entertainment: episodes of the Netflix’ scandi drama Equinox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 187

Friday, January 15

Once again, the squirrels seem to be engaged in some kind of gang fight. You hear them chasing around on the roof (their little footfalls, balump, balump, balump, balump, are quite comical), and see them charging frantically up tree trunks, often in pursuit of each other. They all look alike to me—they have no gang tattoos or identifying markings—but I wonder if there’s an invasion going on. Perhaps an outsider family is attempting to muscle in on those who currently occupy this desirable yard with its productive oak trees. 

Emily thinks it’s an echo of the Trump mob’s attack on the Capitol. It’s hard to think of anything else these days.

They really love running along the narrow top of the fence that divides our yard from next door. Nimble little varmints. 

Yesterday, a plumber arrived to make some necessary repairs in the kitchen. I don’t like having outsiders in the house during these pandemic days, but the kitchen faucet and some of the pipes below had worn out and were leaking. So, miracle of miracles, in an hour and a half the guy replaced the old defective faucet with a new Moen faucet (ordered online from Home Depot) that works great. I had been worrying that he’d have trouble removing the old one—but no. It all went swimmingly—so, what’s wrong? I’m left with a feeling that there should have been more hassle—and a not uncommon sensation that there’s something that I’m neglecting to take care of. Income taxes/1099s? When you have nothing specific (other than fascism) on the top of mind to worry about, the anxiety can be even more intense.

After the plumber left, I opened a lot of windows to air the place out…just in case. I also wiped down some countertops and doorknobs with diluted bleach.

Everyone who I’m in touch with is checking frantically to see just when they might get the COVID-19 vaccine. I get notices from my doctor’s office in Manhattan, saying that I can find out eligibility and maybe make an appointment on their website. Question: Are we better off traveling into Manhattan to get the shots—or better off just staying here in East Hampton, sheltering away from everyone and having no vaccine? I’m also checking the Town of East Hampton website to see what they have to say—so far, no facilities closer than Riverhead are offering inoculation.

Dinner: spaghetti with asparagus pesto and a salad.

Entertainment: episodes of Last Tango in Halifax.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 186

Chilean President Salvador Allende under seige in 1973.

Tuesday, January 12

I’m gradually rereading the books in the house, but there are hundreds here (thanks largely to my former job as a book review editor) so it’ll take a while to consume them. My memory isn’t terrible, but I don’t recall the plots of a lot of books that I feel certain I have read before. So that’s actually helpful. Part way through an Eric Ambler or Graham Greene, I’ll have a feeling that I should know what’s coming—and as the narrative develops, maybe I will recall a bit of what’s next. But some of these books are so good, who cares? 

I recently finished Ambler’s State of Siege—sometimes called The Night-Comers—a political coup/action thriller set in Southeast Asia. As is common in Ambler, the hero is a Western innocent trapped in potentially fatal events not of his own making. The personalities with their ambitions, ideals, and delusions, the betrayals and hazy loyalties are all very convincing. And whether it’s absolutely accurate or not, the author seems familiar with the Southeast Asian culture and collective personality. 

It’s what might be called middle-period Ambler, published after the huge success of such famous early titles as Epitaph for a Spy and A Coffin for Dimitrios. Often books from this middle phase of a successful author’s career can be very good, as with some of John le Carré’s. The writer has had the time and resources to polish his skills, and has come to think that he should try something a little out-of-the-ordinary.

Now I am reading Journey Into Fear, a 1940 Ambler that seems more drawn from his conventional playbook. An unsuspecting engineer gets caught up in a deadly competition between the adversaries of the looming World War—he’s another “man who knows too much.” Can he get back to Britain before the villains murder him? Which of his fellow ship passengers are foes—and which if any can he regard as allies? As I say, it seems a little like earlier Ambler but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

And even if State of Siege is fiction, it offers an accurate picture of what a coup d’état is really like. Armed forces divide into competing factions. Men with powerful modern military weapons battle it out on the streets, oblivious to the fate of the civilian population. There’s little theater—no figures in Viking hats and face paint, no flags and banners. There are just mortars, tanks, high explosives, and combat gear. Airplanes fly above, dropping bombs on those on the ground. The injured are not merely maimed—they’re blown to bits.

The 1975 documentary film The Battle of Chile showed it all: Chilean president Salvador Allende facing a coup in 1973, sporting an army helmet and looking up as the traitors’ aircraft soared above, strafing the presidential palace. Allende died, an alleged suicide. 

During Joe Biden’s upcoming inauguration, some 15,000 troops are slated to guard D.C.. Will they all be loyal to the constitution?

Dinner: potato soup and salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season three of Last Tango in Halifax, plus a bit of Netflix’ Pretend it’s a City featuring the witty Fran Lebowitz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 185

Monday, January 11

In 1968, the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger lamented that “in sleepy London Town there’s just no place for a street fightin’ man.”

My name is called Disturbance; I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants

Later, Jagger explained the song “Street Fighting Man” to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone: “These endless disruptions … I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France.”

So what would the Stones—or those more typically identified with the 1960s counterculture and Vietnam War opposition—say about the events of January 16, 2021 in Washington, D.C.?

They’d probably agree with me that, yes, it was sedition. Yes, it was vandalism and yes, it was reprehensible.

And it threatened to spiral into even more unthinkable violence. Imagine how we’d feel if any member of the Congress had been beaten or shot by Trump’s hooligans. What if Nancy Pelosi or even Mike Pence had been assaulted or killed?

That said: What if it had been 1968? What if the issue on the floor of Congress had been sending more troops to Vietnam or appropriating more money to bomb Hanoi or Haiphong? What if the most flamboyant demonstrator had been Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin rather than the horned-headgear wearing Jake Angeli? How would I feel then? 

Sympathetic, I must admit. (But I must also quickly admit that Hoffman, Rubin et. al were more likely to be attacked by police than to be doing the attacking, as the Chicago demonstrations showed.)

Trump’s hooligans—albeit unknowingly—likely took clues from the 1960s Youth International Party, or Yippies. Rather than showering dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these folks were defacing artwork, maiming and killing police, and stealing speaker’s lecterns.

“Raw, lascivious, and disgraceful,” even murderous, Trumpism has a lot in common with the pre-Lenten blowouts known as carnival, as The New York TimesDavid Brooks has suggested. Trump himself is the Lord of Misrule, making outrageous pronouncements simply in order to foster outrage and uproar.

Meanwhile, observers are left fumbling for the terminology appropriate to describe the Capitol events. In The New Yorker, historian Jill Lepore agreed that it was an insurrection, but also noted that it “looked to be a shambles: a shabby, clownish, idiotic, and aimless act of mass vandalism.”

Whatever. Here’s hoping we can get through the inauguration without seeing any more of it.

Dinner: leftover turkey meatloaf, out-of-season asparagus (from Peru!), and a green salad.

Entertainment: Season two episodes of “Last Tango in Halifax” on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 184

A 1949 poster from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Wednesday, January 6

On a day featuring two amazing progressive Senate wins in Georgia…and a mind-blowing violent right-wing invasion of the U.S. Capitol…the COVID-19 crisis is all but forgotten. 

Yet coronavirus cases continue to mount. Much of the pandemic news coverage has focused on the question of whether the vaccine rollout has been too slow. “The effort to vaccinate millions of New Yorkers against the virus has been off to a sluggish start, alarming city and health officials at a time when infection numbers are surging and a more contagious variant has been detected in the state,” says The New York Times.

But my reading about polio makes me wonder: Has the COVID-19 vaccine rollout been too fast?

Consider this: In 1954, the Salk polio vaccine was new. During that year 600,000 kids were injected with the vaccine as a test. Thousands more were given a placebo rather than the actual vaccine, as a way of checking the vaccine’s effectiveness. Over one million kids took part in the testing. 

Then, a Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan studied the results for around a year before the vaccine was made available to the general public.

Today, in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, only about 60,000 people were tested by Moderna and Pfizer before the public began getting the vaccine. 

That’s about one-tenth the number tested for the Salk vaccine. Overall, the process has been hugely accelerated. It’s “Operation Warp Speed,” don’t you know.

So what happened? Are we so desperate to get this COVID inoculation that testing has been downplayed?

Back in 1954, even with the slower pace of polio vaccine deployment, there were problems. “It turned out that the amazing success of the Salk trials had led the public to demand an immediate release of the vaccine,” writes medical historian David Oshinsky. “The government had quickly relented, allowing five drug companies to ramp up production without proper oversight. The worst offender, Cutter Laboratories of Berkley, California, released a vaccine so contaminated with live poliovirus that 164 children were permanently paralyzed and 10 died.”

Medical science has undoubtedly come a long way in the ensuing decades. Oshinsky says that no safety corners have been cut today, but he admits that there has been no peer review of Pfizer and Moderna’s claims, as is usual. We can only hope that this time, pressure from the public and politicians has not been so intense that standards have again been relaxed.

Entertainment: NPR coverage of the wild events in Washington, D.C., followed by episodes of Last Tango in Halifax on Netflix.

Dinner: lentil soup with hot dogs and a green salad. 

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 183

 Mystic, vegetarian, and dream diarist Emanuel Swedenborg.

Wednesday, December 30

On Twitter, I found out that a group of British psychoanalysis researchers have been attempting to track and analyze humans’ apparently rising number of dreams during the lockdown. You can discover some of their activity at @LockdownDreams or at their website.

The researchers solicit play-by-play accounts of dreams, and lots of people from across the globe have apparently responded. But the shrinks don’t give the rest of us much access to these accounts. On a recent Zoom chat, they kept remarking how interesting the whole phenomenon is, and they read a bit from Sigmund Freud’s speculations about dreams. Hey, I don’t want the contributors’ names and addresses, just a little bit of what they are dreaming. (There’s more to be found on Twitter at the hashtag #LockdownDreams but it’s hard to know how seriously to take the comments there.)

Picking up on this theme, The Guardian says all this dreaming may relate to our experience of “financial hardship, social isolation, loss of our normal roles, and, for some, loss of loved ones. These stresses are real and present, others are feared or existential. Uncertainty and unpredictability dominate our experience.”

I gather that people dream a lot about airports or other forms of travel. Maybe they are seeking some means of escape—or maybe, as I suspect, they simply experience some form of motion while sleeping and that, in turn, prompts a memory of travel.

I have been having an increased number of dreams for several years, possibly as a result of a prescription drug. What I am noticing now, though, is a greater level of dread that seems present irrespective of the content of a dream. I think it is tied to the pandemic, fear of death, and the very dark winter nights—darker by far than winter nights in the street-lit city.

There’s a very amusing rumination on dreaming available on the BBC. Essayist Ian Sansom describes his own frequent-dreaming experience and that of author Graham Greene, who published a dream diary, which he’d kept for decades, called A World of My Own.

Sansom admits to keeping some notes about his dreams but not a formal dream diary: He says it’s the creepy types—Kafka, William Burroughs, and Emanuel Swedenborg—who have kept dream diaries. Then Sansom describes how he has been dreaming a lot lately—prompting his mother to ask “are you secretly eating a lot of cheese?” She’s always been suspicious of cheese, he admits. He describes a backyard barbecue dream, with a horse present, and a vivid supermarket dream, in which he makes love to a beautiful sometimes-French, sometimes-Italian woman in the bread aisle. 

In contrast to such quotidian stuff, Graham Greene’s dreams are like “little movie pitches,” featuring the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, Francois Mitterrand, authors Robert Graves and T.S. Eliot, and several popes. 

Sansom concludes that perhaps the reason we’re dreaming so much is that with the state and lockdown authorities being so intrusive, dreams are the only place left for us to hide—”unexplored territories of the self.” 

Dinner: Tonight we’ll again have the Middle Eastern egg dish shakshuka with feta cheese and a salad. On New Year’s, we’ll have pork chops sautéed with apples and the Southern must-haves hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas and rice) plus garlicky Swiss chard as a stand-in for collard greens.

Entertainment: Episodes of the 1982 BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 182

Red sky at night: spectacular effects after a recent driving rainstorm.

December 28

There’s not much happening in this period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Tomorrow, I must take our car to the Riverhead dealer for an oil change–even though it has traveled less than 2,000 miles since the last oil change back in July. Today, the high point has been the purchase of a dozen eggs.

I’m reading David Oshinsky’s book Polio: An American Story, all about the history of that disease, FDR’s experience, the March of Dimes, and the progress toward the Salk and Sabin vaccines in the 1950s. I’m only about halfway through the book. One interesting revelation: There were two vaccines on offer as far back as the 1930s. Both were ineffective, sloppily tested and produced–and one of them even seemed to infect the inoculated with polio. After nine deaths, researchers understood that they must go slow. There was much more they must learn before any vaccine could responsibly be introduced.

So much for warp speed.

Dinner: Braised chicken with lemon and olives, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.

Entertainment: the Russian movie Beanpole, available on Kanopy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–Chapter 181

Monday, December 21

Could there be a moment more suited to the work of a particular writer than our current period is to the jottings of Don DeLillo, the poet of unanticipated catastrophe and its handmaiden, paranoia? Way before MAGA and its antifascist dissectors, DeLillo invented a university Department of Hitler Studies for his 1985 novel White Noise. Was it Bhopal or Chernobyl—or maybe intimations of COVID-19—that, in the same work, led the author to give a primary role to an “airborne toxic event”?

And as luck—or possibly the clairvoyance of the Scribner marketing department—would have it, DeLillo has a new novel just hitting the shelves of the few unshuttered bookstores. I don’t have access to the just-published The Silence, but according to The New York Times Book Review, its themes include a technology-dependent humanity abruptly deprived of its fix… and the possibility that the end of days has arrived. It just may be the “eschaton”—a new word to me, thanks be to the Times reviewer.

As my luck would have it, I have just begun reading an old DeLillo work, also suited to our current moment, Great Jones Street. This 1973 effort focuses on a burnt-out rock star, Bucky Wunderlick, who has abruptly deserted his band’s tour and entered a period of self-isolation in an unheated and deteriorating lower Manhattan building. Looking out the window, he sees little other than a crust of brown snow on the window sill, ubiquitous derelicts, and and old woman “bundled in pounds of rags, an image in the penciled light of long retreat from Moscow.” It is, he says, a “time of prayerful fatigue,” of unbroken solitude.

After a few days, his girlfriend Opel arrives. They live mostly in the room’s bed, and “each day passed, detached from time,” as she waits for her drug-trafficking “operative” to arrive. Then Opel mysteriously dies, and Bucky becomes ever more withdrawn from the outside world.

In time, the lost “mountain tapes” are passed along to him. In the vein of Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes,” these are unpolished, “genuinely infantile” recordings of Bucky accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The songs are “strange little autistic ramblings.” But the fabled tapes offer him a way back, a chance to remake himself, he figures.

There are other themes in Great Jones Street, some of which seem more of its period than of our own. There’s an ironically named commune, Happy Valley Farm, which has stolen from a “top-secret U.S. Guv. installation” a “mind-crushing” drug that everyone now wants. (Does anyone still do drugs so recklessly?) There’s a Timothy Leary/Doctor Robert-like “scientific genius of the underground” who’s called Dr. Pepper. And while our age knows all too well the relentless pursuit of celebrity, Bucky’s is marked by rock stars who, Dylan-like, seek isolation—which only increases the desire of the press and the public to see and hear from them. “The less you say, the more you are,” remarks a television interviewer who traps Bucky in the hallway of his building. 

Great Jones Street putters along until it finally sputters out. It’s more of a mood piece than a real novel, but the mood is appropriate to our wintry period of desolation and hoped-for rebirth. Bucky never returns to the limelight and lives on only in the form of rumors. There may be worse fates.

Dinner: Penne with roasted red peppers and goat cheese and a lettuce, pear, and snap peas salad.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 180

Friday, December 18

The Twitterverse is alive with chatter about how Trump and his buds will attempt to pull off some kind of mid-January coup. 

On January 6, according to the scenario, Trump will push the Senate/House to accept his alternate slate of electors. Then if that fails, there’s plan B: the imposition of martial law followed by a re-vote in the disputed states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. The primary backer of this fantasy is the loony, felonious, and recently pardoned General Michael Flynn—even more sure than Trump is that he is a victim.

A key part of this dark plot: the monkeyed-with Dominion voting machines, which were allegedly doing the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party.

It’s all kind of fun…in the same way that it was fun to imagine that Dwight D. Eisenhower was an agent of the international communist conspiracy. 

The winter storm that blew across the East on Wednesday dumped four feet of snow in upstate New York and killed several people. But out here on the East End, we got only a couple of inches, followed by rain that melted much of that. This morning I spread rock salt on our walkway, then shoveled away most of the ice that remained. 

The storm threat prompted Stop & Shop to cancel our scheduled Friday food delivery, but we were able to reschedule for Saturday. Emily was worried that the delivery guys could slip and fall on our ice—hence, my anti-ice efforts.

At the moment, the late-afternoon sun is out, casting golden hour rays across the woods and onto our side yard. Would that this might be the worst of winter that we’ll receive. Fat chance.

Dinner: an all-veggie affair with baked potatoes and sour cream, baby brussels sprouts, and a pear and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: The final episode of Britbox’ lame adaptation of the Anne Bronte novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.