A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 215

New to our yard: Cherry Frost climbing roses.

Friday, May 28

The lockdown appears to be drawing to a close. Out on the streets of the East End, you see a mix of people with and without masks. Theaters are reopening—albeit with lots of kiddie movies. Regal UA East Hampton Cinema has the horror movie A Quiet Place Part II and the Disney comedy Cruella, along with racing drama Dream Horse and action flick Godzilla vs. Kong, the poster for which reads “in theaters March 31.” Whoops. 

(Presumably, the youth suffer less from COVID anxiety than do older people, but then this theater has always featured lots of adolescent-appropriate, disposable flicks.)

Restaurants, too, are in the process of reopening. The former Michael’s is now Rita Cantina—no menu posted yet on any website, but I bet its South-of-the-Border fare is every bit as authentic as that of Taco Bell…if a little more pricey. There’s also an “extensive Agave-focused bar program.” Oye, que loco!

All of which raises the question of just what Emily and I should do. Do we want to revert to our former habits, where we viewed our East End house primarily as a getaway destination and our Manhattan apt as our real residence? Or do we completely reverse that pattern?

 Over the past one year-plus, we’ve established new ways of coping with the demands of everyday life, including Stop & Shop food deliveries, FedEx conveyance of Walgreens prescriptions, libraries for e-books and a little more, and streaming videos from a variety of sources. 

Over the past several days Emily has watched Zoom videos of panels dealing with numerous legal topics, and right now, she’s having a telephone conference with her primary-care doctor. Yesterday, I went and got a very good haircut at Vinnie’s Barbershop in Amagansett—so that’s one more tie to the city that’s been broken.

Vinnie is very agreeable and interesting. His house is in Sag Harbor, and I gather he has always lived there. I went to the shop—a long-running fixture in Amagansett—signed his wait list, and loitered outside 45 minutes for my name to be called. I wore a mask. He didn’t but said he absolutely would if anyone asked him to. 

There are only two barbers in the shop, Vinnie and his son Nick. Vinnie’s corner of the shop is festooned with dozens of bits of paper money—notes from England, Iraq, Iran, Africa, and every corner of the globe. He was acquainted with Cuba’s two currencies—the peso for locals and the CUC, or convertible peso, for tourists. I didn’t ask for his opinion of Bitcoin, Monero, or blockchains—why make trouble?

Emily discussed a possible return to the city with her doctor. The doctor’s advice: stay put. The pandemic isn’t completely over, she said, plus there has been an alarming rise of violence in the city, some of which the doctor had witnessed.

So summer is practically here, and it’s easiest just to stay where we are. I guess that’s what we’ll do…for a bit longer anyway.

Dinner: a grilled eggplant, peppers, and onions salad along with mac ’n’ cheese.

Entertainment: the Christian Petzold “terrorists-on-the run” movie The State I Am In, via streaming service MUBI.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 214

The Rover, more vigilant than even the Stasi, in “The Prisoner.”

Friday, May 21

The Prisoner, the vintage British television show now showing in reruns on streaming service Kanopy, is like a portrait of a retirement community as viewed by Franz Kafka.  

In the 1967 ITV production, the main character played by Patrick McGoohan is a onetime British intelligence agent who has resigned from the service in a fit of pique…caused by an undisclosed grievance. But before he can do any real damage, he is drugged and whisked away to an unknown, distant location, where he will be subtly pressured to reveal just why the bloody hell he is so brassed-off.

Once he awakens from his drug-induced torpor, he finds himself in an all-too-perfect seaside community, The Village. His every need, he learns, will be taken care of: The head man gives him a tour of the amenities—restaurant, shops, hospital, beautiful beaches, abundant and well-manicured gardens, congenial citizenry. There are daily parades, little band concerts reminiscent of the hokey Edward Elgar-esque music often heard in English parks, inescapable easy-listening radio, perfect weather, colorful and cosy clothing, even attractive girlfriends should he want them.

But no, he protests in episode after episode. He will escape, he vows. “I am not a number,” he adamantly rails—everyone, it seems, is assigned a number—“I am a free man!”

Wait just a goddam second—who wouldn’t want to live in such a paradise? It’s like Scandi social democracy on steroids. And it’s more than a little like those gated Florida retirement communities where folks zip around from card games to cocktail parties via golf carts.

You can’t leave The Village, of course. Our Prisoner makes attempt after escape attempt, always being thwarted by the heavy-breathing, menacing weather-balloon-like Rover, which envelops would be fugitives and forcibly takes them back to The Village.

And the powers that be want information. It seems the McGoohan character knows too much, we overhear his handlers confiding to each other.

So what the??? If you’re really so alienated from the System, screw it—just give them what they want and be done with it.

Absolutely not, says this rugged individual, Ayn Randian paragon. 

Well, all right. I suppose freedom means…freedom. Do your thing. I gotta be me.

Exactly what would McGoohan do if free? Play golf? Collect stamps? Vacation in beautiful and exotic places—all a little like The Village?

Maybe he would join Doctors Without Borders, become a Greenpeace activist, or enlist in some other impossibly virtuous cause. No? I thought not. That’s hardly the retired-secret-agent style.

Dinner: pasta with asparagus pesto and a green salad.

Entertainment: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, streamed by the French Institute Alliance Française.  

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 213

Dandelion roaring.

Friday, May 14

Yesterday we went on our most extensive outing since the March trip into the city to get vaccinated. We traveled all the way to Bridgehampton to visit two garden stores, then on to Sag Harbor for ice cream and a walk along the town’s Main Street.

Many plants have come and gone from our yard since we first came to the East End. So I decided that our relatively new twig fence in the front could do with a trailing rose bush or two. But other plants have grown taller, limiting the sunshine that hits the front area. Roses demand lots of rays—so in the end, we decide to make do with only one bush. It is a Cherry Frost Climbing Rose. Easy care, superior disease resistance, repeat blooms from spring until frost, small clusters of double red roses. I will endeavor to plant it today, despite my arthritis-wracked shoulders.

I also got a bag of grass seed, and boy is it pricey. The rose bush, fertilizer, and Liquid Fence deer repellent cost a total of $85.70. The grass seed and a hoe ran to $135.76.

Deer repellent! In spite of the roses’ thorns the deer will eat it, said the very informative salesperson at Marders in Bridgehampton. So apply deer repellent immediately and regularly—maybe even before leaving the store, he said with a straight face.

He was full of information and warnings regarding the rose bush. He seconded our concern about sunshine, said the rose bush should be watered only two or three times a week, and we shouldn’t get water on the leaves, only on the ground. (Do these plants come with a child care subsidy?) Fertilizer should be doled out regularly but sparingly.  The plant shouldn’t come to expect fertilizer as a right, but that it must produce blooms in order to get a reward. Think “teenager with chores and an allowance.”

Sag Harbor wasn’t bustling but it was a Thursday afternoon. Unlike your average Manhattan block, there weren’t any empty storefronts on Main Street. Three restaurants and the supermarket appeared busy enough. The old and quaint movie theater was gutted by a fire a few years back. Now, it has been restored as a cineplex and appeared more or less open for business, showing artsy films and offering a spiffy cappuccino bar out front. That was certainly never there in the old days, when the theater had only one large auditorium which stank from a combination of mildew and heating-oil fumes.

Everyone we saw in town was suitably masked-up. Although people are quite prepared to call the pandemic thing quits, it’s not really time to do so, whatever the CDC says. One friend from our NYC building reports that he got his shots despite the cancellation of his first appointment. Then, he attended a wedding held in the lobby of our building. Afterwards, it turned out that one member of the party had COVID—and had failed to tell anyone. So everyone had to be quarantined. 

Dinner: Avgolemono soup and a salad.

Entertainment: episodes of Netflix’ surprising and darkly humorous Turkish drama Fatma, in which a house-and-office cleaner turns assassin.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 212

Art critic John Berger.

Monday, May 11

Is it possible to manufacture culture, just like automobiles and software?

Well, yes, as the late art critic and novelist John Berger demonstrated in his classic 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing.

This wasn’t really Berger’s primary goal–more of a by-product of his reasoning. Ways of Seeing began by examining the long tradition of European oil painting and its actual, often-mystified purpose of displaying the power and possessions of the wealthy. Then, Berger turned his attention to advertising, which he suggested had taken up the role once played by fine art. 

Artists from Rubens to Rembrandt and up to the moderns were, in considerable measure, devoted to painting things realistically, especially the property and womenfolk of the landed aristocracy. On the other hand, the ads Berger showed were fantasies. Yes, they portrayed expensive objects just as Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors had. But ads are aspirational, giving the viewer images of life as it could be…if only one had enough money. 

So, accepting Berger’s analysis, we can say that the advertising industry does indeed manufacture culture—portraits, landscapes, nudes (or nearly nudes), family tableau. 

Berger suggested that these ads are effective—so much so that they have invaded our dreams. His examples included “the skin dream,” or succulent and inviting portraits of bodies on display. They also include dreams of remote and exotic locations that encourage us to buy a range of products. 

Numerous corporate entities have also been successful in producing culture. Both Hollywood and European motion picture companies have been fabulously effective, as have music production companies from Sun Studios and Motown and right up to Darkroom/Interscope Records, the label behind the pop phenom of the moment Billie Eilish.

But such creation isn’t easy. We are all aware of countless, notorious flubs—from French rock ’n’ roll to the Hollywood movie Ishtar

East Germany was responsible for some of the wildest, and most ham-handed, efforts at culture creation. Anna Funder’s Stasiland describes one attempt to replicate the success of American rock ’n’ roll dance. She quotes from an East German source: 

“Today, all young people dance

 The Lipsi step, only in lipsistep,

 Today, all young people like to learn

 The Lipsistep: it is modern!

 Rhumba, boogie and Cha cha cha

 These dances are all passé

 Now out of nowhere and overnight

 This new beat is here to stay!”

As Funder viewed dancers performing the Lipsistep, “in not one of this panoply of gestures do the dancers’ hips move. Their torsos remain straight—neither bending towards one another, nor swivelling from side to side. The makers of this dance had plundered every tradition they could find and painstakingly extracted only the sexless moves.…the Lipsi step was the East’s answer to Elvis and decadent foreign rock’n’roll. And here it was: a dance invented by a committee.”

Many establishment types were alarmed by the pelvis gyrations of Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker, but East Bloc leaders particularly envied the success of these Western cultural imperialists. Why couldn’t a committee invent an alternative to the Twist?

It seems that it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.

Dinner: Turkey chili and a lettuce and oranges salad.

Entertainment: final episodes of Mhz’s German puzzler Man in Room 301.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 211

East German Communist biggy Erich Honecker with CPUSA leader Angela Davis. Photo by Peter Koard

Sunday, May 2

Readers could never be sure that the outlandish stories related by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski were really nonfiction as he claimed. For instance, one anecdote in his book The Emperor concerned a member of Ethiopian autocrat Haile Selassie’s court—a figure known as the Minister of the Pillow. This person’s only known assignment: to quickly and discretely insert a pillow beneath the feet of the diminutive Selassie whenever the Emperor chose to sit on his grand throne. 

The pillow helped to disguise Selassie’s short stature—and made him seem less like the preposterous Lily Tomlin TV character Edith Ann who sat in an oversize chair with her feet dangling above the floor.

Could there really have been a Minister of the Pillow?

Similarly, many stories about the East German secret police seem ripped from Kapuscinski’s pages. Could these honestly be true?

Before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany was an East Bloc ally of the Soviet Union that kept an extremely close watch on its citizenry.

The East German Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, was the vast “internal army by which the government kept control,” in the words of Anna Funder, author of Stasiland. “Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasized through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every factory, every apartment block, every pub.” 

In the last year of its existence, the Stasi employed 97,000 full-time operatives and had 173,000 unofficial informants in East Germany—a country of 17,000,000 residents. That works out to one operative for every 63 people. In Nazi Germany, there was only one Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens.

And during the forty-odd years that the GDR lasted, the Stasi arrested 250,000 people.

There are countless weird stories about the Stasi, some of which are related in Funder’s book. 

For instance, she says that the Stasi developed a quasi-scientific, “smell sampling” method for keeping track of people. Everyone has his or her own peculiar odor, they believed, which we leave on everything we touch. Such smells can be captured and, with the help of “sniffer dogs,” used to find a match. To that end, the Stasi had a vast inventory of jars for smell samples, consisting of things like soiled clothing stolen from people’s apartments. “The Stasi would take its dogs and jars to a location where they suspected an illegal meeting had occurred, and see if the dogs could pick up the scents of the people whose essences were captured in the jars.”

Icky, no?

Another story. The Stasi had elaborate plans for a final day of confrontation with internal enemies of the regime—a Day X. On that date, yet to be determined, Stasi officers would arrest and jail precisely 85,939 East Germans, all listed by name on the plans. They imagined how all available prisons and camps, including former Nazi detention centers, schools, hospitals and factory holiday hostels, would house these prisoners 

Tis the final conflict, as “The Internationale” would have it.

To write her book, Funder found many people who had contact with the Stasi. In one case, a young woman was summoned to a Stasi major’s office, Room 118 at a police station. There, the officer produced a pile of her private love letters, communications with a former Italian boyfriend whom she had met during a trip to Hungary, and he grilled her about them. The Stasi officer, who was exaggeratedly polite, focused on individual words in their “private lovers language,” including their pet names for each other. He knew a great deal about this boyfriend—his job, his house in Umbria, the make of his car. The Stasi were “very interested” in this friend—but the woman said she couldn’t help them since the two had split up. The major let her leave, but gave her his business card and said she should not hesitate to call.

Which she did later, after discussing with her mother this invitation to become an informer. When the Stasi officer came to her home along with another official, the woman told him she was going to invoke her right to communicate directly with the country’s Communist leader, Erich Honecker, and make a complaint. Weirdly, this seemed to set the officials back on their heels—there was no need to get Berlin involved, they said. She never knew why the Stasi feared this communication with Honecker…but somehow, she had won.

Not everyone won, of course. Between 1961 and 1988, over 100,000 GDR citizens tried to escape to the West and over 600 of them died in the process. The Berlin Wall—known internally as Die Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or the Antifacist Protection Rampart—was, the East German regime declared, “a service to humanity” in that it walled out imperialism. And of course it walled out most everything else.

Dinner: chicken salad and tomato-red pepper soup.

Entertainment: episodes of the old sitcoms Cheers and Seinfeld.