A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 272

My sister and I goofing around in my father’s boat, circa 1955. Its winter quarters were our side yard.

Wednesday, August 31

There was a line in a television documentary we just viewed that went something like: That particular eventful afternoon in your childhood—how many more times in your life will you remember it? Perhaps five?

Actually, there are several childhood afternoons, and mornings for that matter, that I think of frequently, even though they weren’t always eventful: That Christmas morning when I woke before my parents and, as they dozed on, I went to check out the loot awaiting me below the Christmas tree. Or that day when the oppressive summer heat finally broke and I went out to ride my tricycle in the crisp, sunny morning. I had on a red-and-black checked plaid overshirt—and, at my mother’s insistence, a cap with Rocky-and-Bullwinkle-style earflaps, which I considered mortifyingly unstylish. (I was already eager for the J.F.K.-inspired, hatless decade of the 1960s.)

My father always took afternoon naps. His job at C.E. Thompson Lumber Co. was apparently not so demanding that he couldn’t come home for lunch—often a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread—and a half-hour snooze. I marveled at how he could fall asleep—apparently even then I was a restless sleeper—and how he could wake up after only a half-hour. So I remember one particular day as I went into his bedroom just as he was stirring: the slightly funky smell of his sweaty sheets. The orange, late afternoon light as it came in through the Venetian blinds. His boxer shorts and white T-shirt. And how he always put his shoes on first, then slipped into his baggy-legged gabardine trousers. Were those really still in style in the 1950s…or had he somehow retained such pants from the Big Band-era 1940s?

And speaking of gabardine…does it no longer exist? He had lots of things—non-button-down, luxurious feeling shirts, pants with copious pleats—made of the material. Now, most everything is just cotton (or perhaps a cotton-polyester blend), which must be just too plentiful and cheap for manufacturers to resist. The consuming public knows no better.

My disparate memories are often bound up with clothes: the rolled-cuff blue jeans that I’d wear in cooler weather. Several green-corduroy winter coats—always dark green. The high-top sneakers (we called all such shoes, regardless of their style, “tennis shoes”) that I got new versions of every spring. I remember sitting in Miss Jones’ sixth-grade class, proud of my then-spanking-clean, thick-soled shoes, and looking out the window at the big oak tree that graced the playground. I couldn’t wait for recess and the inevitable softball game. Then, I’d be able to wear my navy blue felt baseball cap. That’s another fabric missing today: felt. 

I have dozens of such memories. Lately, the summer heat has made me think of our Sunday, after-church dinners, when we’d often have fried filets of fish. (My father was an avid fisherman; I seldom had the patience to sit for sweltering hours in the boat, waiting for Mr. Smallmouth Bass to grab the artificial lure.) My poor mother didn’t even like fish—but because he’d caught it, she’d have to fry it up in her small, airless kitchen. More than the fish, I miss the stinky, farm-raised tomatoes (5¢ a pound at the local farmers market) and the tiny field peas (“lady peas” she called them) that she served on the side. The peas didn’t have much flavor but they were a Southern staple, just as much as the more famous black-eyed peas. Was there dessert? I don’t remember any. Maybe that came later in the day.

My sister died in the polio epidemic of 1956, age 12. She’d had one of the Salk vaccine jabs, but got the disease anyway in the late fall of the year.

Was that timing unusual? Polio epidemics seemed to arrive in the summer months–so much so that some people called polio “the summer illness.” The Salk vaccine was chosen for use throughout the U.S. in 1955. By 1957, following mass immunizations promoted by the March of Dimes, the annual number of U.S. polio cases fell from a peak of nearly 58,000 cases to 5,600 cases. But, as I recall, it was Albert Sabin’s oral vaccine, which came around in the early 1960s, that really conquered the illness. After a wave of oral-vaccine immunization, by 1961 only 161 cases were reported in this country.

Tonight’s dinner: coconut chicken curry and cucumber raita.

Entertainment: The Mubi music video Ryuichi Sakamoto: Async at the Park Avenue Armory.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 271

Tuesday, August 9

Today is my birthday. I am 74. No great celebrations here, but I did get fresh beets at the store.

Beets are really tasty but can be a pain to prepare, particularly on the stovetop. But I will cook ‘em up in our Instant Pot, where preparation only takes about 30 minutes and doesn’t heat the kitchen even more on a day when temps may hit 90 degrees.

Melissa Clark’s Dinner in an Instant cookbook has a recipe for cold sliced beets with a dressing of olive oil, yogurt, lime juice, and dill. It’s great in hot weather. 

I also got some fresh basil and will use it in pesto later in the week. If the weatherman is to be trusted—and why would you?—it should turn cooler tomorrow or Thursday.

Emily is laboring away, reading case after court case on the issue of Congressional redistricting and partisan gerrymandering. If courts have no say over the matter and everything is left up to state legislatures—as the “independent state legislature” theory and constitutional “textualists” hold—then we are certainly screwed. In many states, Republican-dominated legislatures will simply make it impossible for Democrats to ever win elections. What happened to all those smug people like George Will who once blabbed on and on about the genius of our constitutional “framers”? Democracy in the U.S. was always pretty limited, and now it seems to be withering away—even as it continues to exist in places like Japan and Europe, where the U.S.A. helped to create it in the post-World War II period.

And speaking of Japan, we have watched a series of films by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Most of the flicks that we have seen—including Tokyo Story, Late Spring, Late Autumn, Equinox Flower, and An Autumn Afternoon—focus on the evolution of the Japanese family in the years after World War II. And specifically, they concern the slow move away from arranged marriages and toward allowing young people to make their own choices. 

Filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu.

In more than one such film, there are young adults still living with their aging parents and often resisting the very idea of marriage. In Late Spring, a twenty-something daughter played by Setsuko Hara feels she should stay with her widowed father, played by Ozu regular Chishu Ryu. HE is the one pushing her to live her own life. In Tokyo Story, an aging couple travel from a remote area to visit their grownup kids in Tokyo—but the young people are too busy with jobs and work to spend much time with the parents. So, before long the old folks turn around and go home—and by the movie’s end, the mother has died and father is left all alone. But he seems to be happy enough with his lot; Ozu seems to be saying don’t worry, all will be ok.

A bit of wishful thinking there. Ozu seems to favor the end of the old ways in which patriarchal and feudal customs still ruled the day. But is Japan today characterized by the same sort of loneliness and atomization that exists in America? I know that Japan has an aging population—but is there a similar crisis around the matter of living arrangements for the very old?

In An Autumn Afternoon, a group of successful, middle-aged men spend hours scheming about a suitable marriage match for one man’s daughter. Ultimately, they arrange a marriage for her. If this is a timeworn custom, no longer appropriate under late capitalism, at least it means that, however oppressive some may have found it, a sort of caring community still existed in the immediate postwar years. 

In The Communist Manifesto, Frederich Engels and Karl Marx wrote that capitalism had “torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” Ozu shows that this was yet a bit of an overstatement.

Dinner: black beans and rice, along with a kale and apple salad. 

Entertainment: Ozu’s 1959 remake Floating Weeds.