A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 217


Friday, June 11

I’m thinking about just how the pandemic and lockdown changed our cooking and eating habits. And since this blog is meant to be a personal record of this strange time, I’m recording my thoughts here.

In daily life as we used to know it, we regularly adopted various new foods and recipes. First, we’d try that tuna and cannellini bean salad to see if we liked it—and before long, we might find that it had become a dinnertime staple. Recipe sources would keep referring to something not in the pantry—so you’d go get some gochujang or miso and, since the stuff was suddenly there, you’d keep making a dish that used it whether you totally loved the ingredient or not.

Moreover, in the ordinary course of life, I have made certain dishes over and over. I’d repeat a dish every couple of weeks, or have it in my head as a fall-back recipe for quick and unplanned weeknight fare. 

And of course, we’d occasionally eat out at a restaurant.

The lockdown and difficulty of getting foodstuffs altered this way of living. Suddenly, no matter what the online or TV chefs recommended, it was scarcity that began defining choices. You couldn’t just run out to H Mart or another Asian store to pick up an otherwise exotic ingredient. Jicama? Lemongrass? Nope.

The supermarket Stop and Shop, from which we began getting deliveries in March of 2020, was full of surprises. One week, a completely ordinary comestible like raisins or Gala apples would be out-of-stock, but they would have Kikkoman soy sauce, sugar snap peas, Crosse & Blackwell capers, and Uruguayan organic honey. 

Certain of my onetime go-to dishes are now mostly forgotten: cold sesame noodles; Szechwan eggplant with ground pork; Ma Po tofu; pasta bolognese; and prepared items from Trader Joe’s including chicken pot pies and frozen ravioli.

We have no wok here on Long Island and no easy access to such things as Szechwan hot bean paste. Those changes account for much of a decline in my Asian cooking. Also, of course, there’s no Trader Joe’s store.

Two other factors have figured in our dietary changes: the fact that Emily is now the executive chef in charge of food-ordering; and the shift away from spontaneity to weekly planning of menus.

Old reliable dishes that I still make after decades include lentil soup, chicken paprikash, turkey chili and turkey picadillo, avgolemono soup, beef stew, omelettes and frittatas, and turkey meatloaf.

New dishes that now appear with some regularity: the Latin beef dish ropa vieja; black beans and rice; cornbread tamale pie; penne with asparagus pesto; pasta with roasted red peppers and goat cheese; grilled pork chops and hamburgers; baked chicken breasts with artichokes; spaghetti with drop meatballs; American picnic potato salad; the spicy egg dish shakshuka; and (after a couple of failed attempts to make my own pizza from scratch) Amy’s frozen pizza.

So summing up, it seems there has been a decline in Asian food-making and a surge in Latin and All-American eats. I also think we are consuming less meat and more largely vegetable entrees. 

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

Dinner: spaghetti with meatballs and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Life on Mars, season two.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 216

Glam rock 1970s guitar hero Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

Wednesday, June 9

We’ve become regular watchers of an old British television crime series, Life on Mars. (First shown in the U.S. on BBC America, it’s now available on streaming service BritBox.) This would be a no-more-than average crime show but for the possibilities allowed by its premise: Liverpool policeman Sam Tyler is struck by a car in 2006 and somehow when he awakens he finds himself still a cop but mysteriously transported back to 1973.

Yes, it’s a bit Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, Peggy Sue Got Married, and countless other time-travel and stuck-in-time flicks. All the same, the time-warp gimmick allows the show some subtleties that otherwise wouldn’t show up in a BBC policier. Repeatedly, for example, Sam is seen busting a perp and reflexively delivering what Americans call a Miranda warning: “You have the right to remain silent” etc. Only in this case, the perps regularly interrupt him—“hey, that’s not how it goes,” they’ll say. Sam will be reciting the 2006 version, which offers greater information about the arrested person’s rights–for example acknowledging that anything they say can be taken down and used against them in court. The 1973 statement said little more than “you have the right to remain silent.”

So in small ways, Life on Mars offers views of how things have improved over the recent past.

Yes, there are bell-bottomed trousers, gas-guzzler muscle cars, wonderful late ‘60s rock (and some repellent Brit-pop schmaltz, too),  and a general lack of enlightenment about the rights and respect that should be afforded to women and gays. More subtlely, there are cultural touchstones that we now take for granted and which are unknown to most of the characters: Sam at one point refers to boxer Mike Tyson—already a near has-been in 2006 but unknown in 1973. He also meets a young and unknown Marc Bolan, who attained a fleeting measure of notoriety in the mid-1970s as the guitar hero of glam-rock group T. Rex but who died in a car crash in 1977. So in this instance, the star-struck Sam is simultaneously ahead-of-the-times and living in the past.

Sam desperately wants to get back to the way things used to be—which would ordinarily mean going back to the past but in this case means soaring ahead to the future of 2006.  

But just what were things like in 2006? Adding to the viewers’ possible confusion is the fact that actor John Simm who plays Sam Tyler has subsequently appeared in at least two other police-procedural shows. There’s Prey from 2014, in which he plays a hotly pursued detective wrongly suspected of committing a murder. And there’s the 2021 mini-series Grace, in which he plays a senior detective caught up in a deceptively complex missing-persons case. Are all these cop characters somehow linked or even the same person, a viewer may briefly wonder?

Then there’s the “who is that?” game which Emily and I play repeatedly: An actor will wander onto the screen and we nudge each other in silent recognition. Life on Mars is absolutely stuffed with such walk-ons. Of course, there is co-lead Philip Glenister (familiar from State of Play) playing cop Gene Hunt, “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding” in Sam’s words. And, playing Sam’s youthful mom is Joanne Froggatt, familiar as lady’s maid Anna Bates from Downton Abbey. Then there’s Paul Copley, the British character actor who has over 100 appearances to his credit including roles in Coronation Street and Last Tango in Halifax. He shows up here as an angry hostage-taker. 

Does today’s blog post make you think that maybe, just maybe, Hardy watches too much TV? Never mind. We’ve decided to go back to New York City next Tuesday for a few doctor’s appointments and other things. Perhaps there will be other distractions in Gotham.

Dinner: spaghetti with drop meatballs and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: predictably, more episodes of Life on Mars.

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.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 210

A 1937 gathering of ex-slaves in North Carolina. Photo: Library of Congress

Thursday, April 29

By accident, I am reading two history books at once. And although they concern places that are vast distances from each other and developments separated in time by a century, there is a similarity: Each volume looks at the disintegration of a system of near total political control.

I’ve long meant to read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 but have been put off by its 700-page girth and by the fact that its subject seemed so irrelevant to our current-day experience. But the latter objection faded in the face of the recent presidential election, with its resonance to the Compromise of 1877, which placed a losing candidate in the White House.

So I picked up the book while we were in the city getting vaccinations during March.

Meanwhile, our viewing of Hulu’s Deutschland 83 made me want to know more about East Germany, its secret police, and its deformed socialism. I read an e-book version of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which contains some reminiscences of the German Democratic Republic, and I endeavored to get an e-book history of East Germany from the library. But until recently, I was unable to acquire a copy of Anna Funder’s Stasiland.

So lacking any other book, I began reading Foner—and it turns out to be fascinating. I keep reading snippets of it out loud to Emily: Listen to this!

Then, 70-odd pages into Foner, the library informed me that Stasiland was available. I was afraid that if I turned it away, I’d not get another opportunity. So I got it—and it’s pretty fascinating, too. 

I had first thought I would only read Foner’s account of the hard-to-imagine, corrupt deal that in 1877 placed the losing Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the White House and sent winning Democrat Samuel J. Tilden home—in exchange for withdrawing federal troops from the once-traitorous, southern states. 

“Huh?” any sane person might say. “How’s that? Come again?”

What does the movement of federal troops have to do with a national election? Well, back then the South’s white voters were a key component of the Democratic Party’s constituency. The presence of occupying federal troops kept whites from terrorizing blacks—which was particularly important once the 1870 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed black males the right to vote. But if the two parties could agree—in a backroom deal—to let southern whites retake political control of their states…well, then, just who would occupy the White House seemed a minor matter. Right this way, Mr. Hayes.

(It’s probably unnecessary to point this out, but the two parties have switched ideals and constituencies. The GOP is now the party of white supremacy and voter suppression, and the Democrats are the party with the large African-American constituency. And we wonder why Europeans are mystified by our political history.)

By the turn of the 20th century, virtually all blacks were disenfranchised by the legislatures of every southern state. Back then, southerners used devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes to deny ballots to African Americans; today, they’re using gerrymandering, shorter voting hours, withdrawal of absentee balloting, and more to lock out black voters. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are some of the “listen to this” revelations of the first 100-odd pages of Foner’s Reconstruction.

Although the war’s end was two years away, the institution of slavery had begun to disintegrate by 1863. Reports of “insubordinate” slave behavior multiplied across the south. Lincoln’s “emancipation proclamation” declared slaves to be free—but only those still inhabiting the Confederate territory. Nevertheless, thousands of blacks began enlisting in the Union Army, and that alone gave them new status: In army courts blacks could testify against whites and by 1864, they received equal pay with white soldiers. Many learned to read and write, and they debated the future society amongst themselves. When William T. Sherman’s army overwhelmed Atlanta and marched to the sea, thousands of former slaves marched behind it.

Former slaveholders admitted that they had never really known their slaves at all: Why were the slaves deserting, one planter wondered, if they had been “content, happy, and attached to their masters” as he had believed?

So what exactly would the former slaves do now? Various ideas contended: In Louisiana, sugar-plantation owners hastened to reaffirm their loyalty to the union—and federal authorities required their former slaves to continue laboring amid the sugar cane as wage workers. On Georgia’s Sea Islands and rice coast, on the other hand, Sherman issued a “field order” that transformed former slaves into small landholders. Each slave family was granted 40 acres of land and possibly the use of an army mule.

Louisiana’s always surprising demographics played a formative role in shaping reconstruction. New Orleans possessed a large, wealthy, and educated community of free blacks. Many spoke only French and educated their children at private schools in New Orleans or Paris.  But in spite of their elevated rank, these people allied with the former slaves and agitated for the vote and other rights.

And as Richmond fell and the war came to a close, the former slaves paraded through southern city streets celebrating. Four thousand blacks paraded through Charleston behind a banner reading “We Know No Master but Ourselves.” In Richmond, blacks mobbed the streets, dancing, praying, and singing. Abraham Lincoln himself walked about the former Confederate capital accompanied only by a dozen sailors. Even today, it’s hard to imagine such spectacles.

In coming posts I will provide some equally startling details of life in East Germany.

Dinner: more artichoke chicken, American picnic potato salad, and a green salad

Entertainment: episodes of the German drama The Typist.

Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 209

John Lennon with Frank Zappa.

Tuesday, April 27

Paranoia strikes deep.

Last night I dreamed that I was at the bank, making fumble-fingered mistakes at an ATM machine, which then froze up. I spoke to a clerk who then went to get a higher authority to help fix things. Out came a tallish, mustachioed guy wearing a gray plaid suit who told me that, yes, I have screwed up and my account has been frozen and will remain so for a long while.

I think I just have many worries about personal affairs. Why these anxieties should center on the bank—who knows?

Did that mustachioed guy resemble Frank Zappa? 

The Frank Zappa movie on Hulu is shoddy and snooze-inducing. It features Frank himself, members of his band, and various hangers on who appear as talking heads. At great length, his wife and a couple of musicians spout a lot of pretentious gibberish—there seems to have been almost no editing in the movie. And more significantly, there’s almost no music—yet we’re told over and over just how tremendously avant-garde and visionary Zappa’s music was. One band member tells how Zappa never had a hit record—but he could have, easily…he just chose not to.

After a while, I realized what all this jabber reminded me of: the vacuous rambling of the Dennis Hopper character as he praises Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.  “The man’s enlarged my mind…I mean sometimes he’ll, uh, well, you’ll say hello to him, right, and he’ll walk right by you…I’m a little man, but he’s a great man.” And so on. 

Why did other musicians, ranging from Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger to John and Yoko, visit Zappa and pay homage to him? Such moments make one embarrassed to have been part of the empty and always posturing 1960s. You need to free your mind, man.

Our culture has hardly outgrown such stuff, as all the high-flown rhetoric about various rappers and Taylor Swift shows. But I, for one, don’t take any of this seriously anymore. Either I have grown up or just grown very old.

Dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichokes and American picnic potato salad (recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook).

Entertainment: We’re truly running short of quality stuff to watch, as the pandemic’s toll on film production is more and more evident. We’ve viewed a number of wacky, deeply disappointing flicks, from Cold Case Hammarskjold to Zappa. So what now? Perhaps Mhz’ German police drama The Typist or the Finnish thriller Man in Room 301.