A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 189

A poster for De Sica’s very silly “Scandal in Sorrento.”

Tuesday, January 26

Jason of Energy Associates has become a regular caller. One can no more shake Jason—who has telephoned at least ten times of late—than one can evade the college alumni magazine. 

Unlike other marketers, whose unsexed, android voices might wish you to be aware of a Medicare benefit to which you are entitled, Jason seems to be a real, bona fide human—although Emily tells me that the most recent “Jason” isn’t Jason at all: She knows his voice, and this isn’t he. 

Perhaps there is no true Jason—it’s just a non-threatening, New Agey name, suggestive of Argonautical questing but not at all of home invasions or midnight vandalism. No, Jason, I feel assured, is at home in bed early, preparing each evening for a long next day of friendly and helpful phone calling to those in need of reduced-carbon electricity options.

Walgreen’s, another frequent caller, wishes to inform us (not sure which one of us) of a prescription that has been delayed due to an insurance issue, which they are working to resolve. One might wonder just which prescription is at issue here. But wonder in vain…Walgreen’s friendly but disembodied voice isn’t going on record with that information.

Nor can I shake my worrisome dreams. They wake me at 5 a.m., like some insistent car alarm or military bugler, and then I begin worrying about an altercation I had with a co-worker or fellow Zabar’s customer back in the 1980s. These embarrassing life experiences cling to my unconscious mind, ever ready to spring forth in a new burst of angst and remorse. Take that time I had a fist fight in the 8th grade band room…or maybe that disappointing grade in 11th grade geometry class. I had so wanted, and felt I deserved, an A. Why? Who cares? I still do, it seems.

We recently viewed two very engaging streaming videos, each of which featured young male protagonists who are tempted by society’s glittery materialism, yet quietly choose more humane options. In the short French Entracte (or Intermission), a teenage boy all but accidentally watches Vittorio De Sica’s neorealistic classic The Bicycle Thief while his friends sneak off into another theater to see The Fast and the Furious 8. Afterwards, they rave about that action flick’s big budget and exciting title sequence, as our classic film watcher says nothing but silently reflects on De Sica’s profound depiction of father-son bonding amid desperate poverty. (Entracte is part of the online My French Film Festival.)

In Netflix’ The Life Ahead, an aged and ailing Madame Rosa (86-year-old Sophia Loren) adopts an African-migrant teenage boy, Momo, who secretly deals drugs. He clearly delights in the lucrative and hard-partying, fast-lane life, but gives it up when the sinking Rosa needs his support. Momo’s is a choice in favor of Rosa’s love and that of her community, which includes a prostitute and her child, a shopkeeper, and a physician. 

It turns out that Netflix has several classic Sophia Loren movies, including The Sign of Venus and Scandal in Sorrento. Actors in the latter, very silly farce include a middle-aged de Sica, who’s infatuated with the ravishing Loren but comically out of his depth.

Dinner: pork chops with apples, braised kale, and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Scandal in Sorrento.

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.