A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 190

Monday, February 1

It showed overnight—by 9 a.m., only about an inch, but it’s still continuing to snow off and on. The National Weather Service says that by early afternoon, there will be a combination of rain and snow that could be heavy at times. Also, it’s supposed to be very windy and cold. Total accumulation could be from 3 to 7 inches. Tomorrow, though, there’s supposed to be light rain, and the low is to be only 35F—so maybe any accumulated snow will melt. Then, there could be more snow, with little accumulation.

In the city and points west, it’s colder than it is here and total snow could be up to 14 inches. By Thursday, temps should be in the upper 30s.

Just before I awoke, I had the following dream: We are staying at a large, colonial house with a big front porch. When we drive up, we find that there are three dogs waiting on the porch. Two are German shepherds and one is a small English bulldog. (Could these be the Bidens’ dogs? Hmmm, a large colonial house….) No humans are around. The shepherds, with their expressive faces, seem a bit unhappy. Do they belong to the owner? Do they want to go inside? We leave and when we come back again, they are still there waiting. I find a couple of buckets and put water in them for the pups to have a drink. What to do?

The New Yorker has a sad and frightening article by a Midwestern professor whose wife one day begins having hallucinations. An art lecturer, she takes students to museums for discussions of paintings—and the students tell him, confidentially, that she has been describing figures in the paintings who aren’t in fact there. She also begins imagining people in their house, such as The Flowery Man (in actuality, a hallway flower pot).  Having read that it does no good to deny the presence of such figures, he plays along, even providing a place setting at the dinner table for one such visitor.

Then one day, the police and an ambulance arrive at the door. It seems the woman has been having over-the-backyard-fence conversations with neighbors about her visitors. They take her away to a hospital, but by now the pandemic has hit and the husband is not allowed to visit. After a bit, though, he is discovered to be suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion, and he is admitted to the same facility but not allowed to see his wife. Before long, he is sent to a psychiatric hospital and his belt and shoelaces are taken away from him. Their daughter having signed the proper forms, the wife is driven away to a different state where she is to live in a long-term care residence. There, she will die of COVID-19. The professor has been allowed to return to his home, and his last communication with his wife is a phone call in which he reads her a poem.

Horrifying, no? Could my dreams turn to such hallucinations? Could Emily and I be forcibly separated for some reason?

We’re doing O.K. for now, but the article’s subtle description of these folks’ slow drift into mental illness, old age, decrepitude, and institutionalization—well, you know, it’s likely to happen to all of us. The only really new wrinkle in the story is the addition of COVID-19. I’d just as soon avoid that, thank you very much, but no vaccines seem available to us. It can seem as though only the likes of Mia Farrow,  Queen Elizabeth, and those whose institutional affiliations—such as our twentysomething niece or a friend of Emily’s—are getting the shots.

Emily reads that the snow has led to closing of the state’s vaccination sites. So all those lucky enough to have an appointment for a shot will now have to reschedule. Do they have to go to the end of the queue?

At night we lost electricity at around 8 p.m. But it came back on at 9:36. Then came a succession of five phone calls from PSEG-LI, the utility, saying that the electricity had come back on, then that it was expected to come on by 4 a.m. or maybe 4:30 a.m. One phone call’s robot voice said simply: “System error. Try again later.”

Dinner: turkey chili and a salad.

Entertainment: half of an episode of The Bay on Britbox. Then the electricity failed. 

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 2020–chapter 141

Posters urging the wearing of face masks are all over New York City.

Thursday, September 3

Back to my reflections on the Nazis and Trump.

Victor Klemperer, the diarist/author of the Third Reich history I Will Bear Witness, pays particular attention to the Nazis’ characteristically hyperbolic language. He’s quite struck by the carnival-barker-like aspect of the rhetoric, often referring to it as P.T. Barnum-like. (At one point he calls Hitler the Barnum of Hell.)

The Nazi rhetoric, which Klemperer calls Lingua Tertii Inperii or LTI, is often very exaggerated, focusing on vast advances in prosperity or alleged military triumphs. Economic developments are “greater than ever.” The victories over the Soviet Union are said to be “without parallel in history.”

Does the hyperbole seem familiar?

One “bulletin from the East” reports that “nine million are facing one another in a battle whose scale surpasses all historical imagination.” Bialystok was recently “the greatest battle of attrition and annihilation in world history.” Armies of millions have been annihilated, reports allege, “our wildest expectations exceeded.”

Our own Führer, Donald Trump, has a similar linguistic urge. “Huge,” of course, has been one of his most commonly used words. (Then there’s “bigly,” which many commentators mocked.) This year, he has said the economy is “soaring to incredible new heights. Perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country.”

People he likes or wishes to flatter are “incredible,” “amazing,” or “tremendous.” He himself is the greatest President ever—greater than Lincoln or Washington.

“Not that many people know this,” he’ll say—emphasizing his unique understanding of something. “Believe me, believe me,” he may add—perhaps anticipating listeners’ skepticism.

Then come the insults. “Stupid.” “Loser.” Nancy Pelosi is a “moron.” The drug-dependent Joe Biden is “somebody who has lost a step.” Women are “fat pigs,” “slobs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals.” Perhaps worst of all, is to be “little,” like “little Marco Rubio.”

Increasingly, Trump seems to be courting the conspiracy-minded QAnon crowd. Joe Biden is controlled by “people that you haven’t heard of.” Well, that lets out George Soros, since plenty of people, including the far-right fringe, have certainly heard of that Open Society advocate and philanthropist. 

“You have anarchists and you have the looters and you have the rioters and you have all types, you have agitators,” Trump recently announced in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He told a Fox News correspondent about a planeload of black clad Antifa militants headed for Washington, D.C.—a mob nobody else seems to know about.

Democrats are all far-left wing socialists. “Even a Kennedy isn’t safe in the new radical left Democrat party,” observed the MAGA man after Senator Ed Markey defeated his primary challenger Joe Kennedy.

I guess Trump got this Red Scare stuff from his former lawyer, Roy Cohn, a onetime crony of right-wing bamboozler Senator Joe McCarthy. But with the U.S.S.R. out of business and the A-bomb widely held, does Red-baiting still scare anybody? Does it command any votes?

Dinner: Capriccio salad and corn on the cob.

Entertainment: The Danish political drama Borgen on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 55

Will drive-in movies make a comeback?

Saturday, May 2

A little while ago, I set up the bread machine to make a loaf of light whole wheat bread. The machine, a “Breadman,” is about the size of a large toaster oven. You just put in the ingredients, push a few buttons, and the machine takes care of everything. You can even set a timer to make bread overnight so it will be ready for breakfast when you wake up. 

The loaf I like requires a mix of flours—regular white flour, whole wheat flour, and whole wheat pastry flour. It takes a little over four hours to produce a loaf, what with kneading, pausing to allow for rising, more kneading, more rising, then baking. It’s hardly perfect: The loaves produced don’t have the crusty, chewy texture that one might prefer. But in a quarantined world, they’re hard to beat.

There is, I must admit, some trick with the yeast. Sometimes a loaf will come out sort of flat, and other times, perfectly risen. Just what makes the difference, I cannot tell.

It’s Saturday, and today we may remember to listen to the NPR panel show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” But generally, we forget unless we are in the car. As everybody under lock-down knows, each day seems the same and routines are easily overlooked.

At 10:35 a.m. I have already consumed the thin Saturday Times and am ready for other stimulus. Reporters are weary of Trump’s unhinged rants—anyone for a swig of bleach?—and so they are on to examining whether or not Joe Biden really groped that woman. Some pundits say the Democrats are under no obligation to nominate Biden, their nominee-presumptive. They can just ditch him like that damaged face mask you returned to Amazon, and opt for either Klobuchar or Warren.

Of course, no responsible pundit would suggest Bernie. He’s like the restaurant in the Yogi Berra story: No one goes there, it’s too crowded. Or to paraphrase a recent Hillary Clinton comment, no one likes him—he’s too popular.

The loaf of bread did come out less than perfectly risen. They never have problems on YouTube!

This summer could see the return of drive-in movies, I read yesterday. There’s a certain logic: You’d have the feeling of being on an outing, yet you’d be ensconced in your private chamber, socially distanced from all but your intimate relations and chums. But, like in the old days, the setup would probably appeal most to a younger crowd. Adults might go once—then right back home to the Netflix.

I remember going to a drive-in screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its spellbinding, interplanetary visuals, lush soundtrack, and trippy, mystifying ending, it was really wrong for the drive-in. In order for the wild visuals and the spooky plot to work, you needed to be in a very dark, cavernous theater.

I also recall a Memphis drive-in with one of the most memorable and bizarre double-billings ever: The artsy Women In Love, based on the D.H. Lawrence novel, and Women In Chains, a sleazy B-movie about a female prison.

Tonight’s dinner: leftover lentil salad, saffron rice, and a green salad with cucumber and artichoke hearts.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Norwegian thriller Occupied and the third episode of Collateral. The latter is quite effective: You know just whodunit—but the motive for the killing of an immigrant pizza-delivery guy could be any number of things. The most recent episode involved local police, shady criminals, MI-5, and the military.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 48

The bill for your family’s share is in the mail.

Saturday, April 25

I’ve been wondering about the National Debt Clock. Is it keeping up?

You may have seen the clock. It’s a billboard-size dingus, with spinning, electric-lit numbers. It sits along Sixth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets in Manhattan. Wikipedia says that it first appeared in 1989, and that the idea came from real estate developer Seymour Durst, who worried that future generations would be crippled by the U.S. debt burden. (Yes, you may have heard the name, thanks to a recent, sensational HBO program.)

But I suspect that the true inspiration for the clock came from the professional worriers over the debt.  

One of the all-time great worrywarts in this line was President Herbert Hoover, who warned during the Great Depression that “prosperity cannot be restored by raids on the national treasury.” Hoover—and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for that matter—campaigned in 1932 on a platform of balancing the federal budget.  (Nearly 24% of the population, or over 12 million people, were unemployed at the time.) As the New Deal, with its deficit financing and many government programs, progressed, Hoover’s warnings became ever more frenzied.

But of course, neither Hoover nor FDR are around today. 

As recently as 2008, rich guy and onetime Presidential candidate Ross Perot raised alarms about the debt, saying “not since the Great Depression have we seen an economic crisis of the magnitude that we are facing today.”

And in 2010, a “bipartisan” commission headed by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Democratic Senator Erskine Bowles looked to reduce the federal debt by implementing tax hikes and a number of cuts in federal spending. These included lowering federal spending on health care—hah!—and trimming social security benefits for some recipients. Congress regarded the Simpson-Bowles report with the same enthusiasm it might have shown for mandatory junkets to Chernobyl. Only 11 of the commission’s own 18 members endorsed the recommendations. One who did endorse the commission report: then-Vice-President Joe Biden.

Now, with the federal government throwing money hand-over-fist at pandemic-hammered businesses, health care facilities, and taxpayers, you might think some of these debt-obsessed types would have been agitating to reign in spending. (One organ that is: conservative magazine National Review, which warns that Congress’ massive spending packages “put us farther down the road to fiscal ruin.”) At the moment, though, no one is really paying attention to such voices so far as I can tell.

In any case, you can go to an online version of the National Debt Clock at https://usdebtclock.org

There, you will see the numbers spinning wildly. As of right now, the moment when I am writing this, the clock says the national debt stands at $24,715,691,000,000. Check back in 30 seconds for a much-inflated update. Most ominously of all, the clock has a second figure: Your family’s share of this debt!!!

Expect a bill in the mail any day now!!!

The national debt, it should be said, is just an estimate of how much the federal government is owing to government bondholders and to itself, including to such accounts as the Social Security Trust Fund. And it has seldom been cheaper for the government to borrow money. The wisdom of spending our way back to economic health has seldom been more evident. Yes—throw money at all of our problems! Please!

Today’s dinner: Yay, more leftovers—chicken paprikash and noodles, green salad, and potatoes maybe.

Entertainment: Two episodes of murky Finnish thriller Bordertown and one episode of The Hunters.