A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 147

Mask-wearing instructions in the subway.

Monday, September 14

After doing a load of laundry, I wandered around our East Village neighborhood a little more. Veselka, the 2nd Ave. coffee shop and home of legendary Ukranian borscht and pierogis, is still open, as is Porto Rico Importing Co. on St. Mark’s Place, where I picked up a pound of Italian espresso ground for a French press. Westside Market, improbably located on the East Side at 3rd Ave. and 12th St., is apparently thriving—and soon to become the third busiest market in the area as the Food Emporium is soon to close.

But the string of small Asian restaurants along that same stretch of Third Avenue seems doomed. They were never very bustling. Lots of other storefronts are abandoned and empty. I cannot even remember what was once there.

I went into H Mart, the Asian “convenient store,” as its sign once proclaimed. There were plenty of customers there, buying both prepared food and hard-to-find Asian ingredients.

I did the latter. The Times has an increasing number of Korean recipes, calling for Gochujang hot pepper paste among other things. I’ve never had it, so far as I know, but I will now. The 17.7 oz. container that I picked up says it contains wheat flour, corn syrup, hot pepper powder, distilled alcohol, defatted soybean powder, and more. Will it taste very different from Sriracha? More umami, perhaps? We’ll see.

I’m reading a book I’ve apparently neglected, Vertigo, by one of my favorite writers, W.G. Sebald. The cover says it was his first novel and that it concerns a trip across Europe described by an unnamed narrator. That person tells of his time in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, and a small Bavarian village. Sebald’s usual concerns—memory, the past, mystifying encounters, lethargy—are all here. Don’t those seem like appropriate preoccupations for the lockdown?

Early on, during his sojourn in Venice, Sebald displays the insight that had me nodding in understanding:

“As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit….If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate.”

Yes, these are the very sensations that lie beneath the surface of the Venice-based Daphne du Maurier story “Don’t Look Now,” made into a haunting movie by Nicolas Roeg.

The shade of Franz Kafka makes repeated appearances in Sebald’s account—once during an imagined trip of his from Prague to Riva, and again in the form of two twin boys who enter the narrator’s train, looking exactly like the famed writer. They have “the same dark eyes and thick brows, the same large and unequal ears, with the lobes growing into the skin of the neck.” Did Kafka really go to the movies? Might he have seen an early Tom Mix western?

The 15th is tax day, the deadline for submission of quarterly estimated IRS payments. What else? Oh, I have a dentist appointment!

Dinner: cold cucumber soup, hot dogs with sauerkraut, baked potatoes.

Entertainment: The season two finale of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 146

The fire this time.

Thursday, September 10

We sit on the shore and wait for the wind, in the words of an old Russian proverb.

Back here, things sputter along. I have attended my final doctor’s appointment, this time with a neurologist. Like my other doctor appointments, it was uneventful. Not even a letting of blood.

Afterwards, I again went to the Union Square greenmarket, getting onions, tomatoes, apples, peaches, and a cucumber.

Emily has made an appointment with Geek Squad, the computer fixit folks at Best Buy, to see if her Android phone has a virus. For some reason lost to the distant past, her account there is in my name, so I’ll go along and bring my credit card just in case.

Tonight’s dinner: chicken paprikash again, ziti, sour cream, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: An episode of the Wales-based policier Hinterland on Netflix, plus another episode of Borgen.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 128

Nap time? Midday rest periods may be natural.

Friday, August 7

My father always took a post-lunch nap. This seemed peculiar, even quaint to me—something old people did, though he was hardly old. Or maybe it was a holdover from a more-rural society. I didn’t know. 

He would come home from work for a quick and simple lunch, then a half-hour nap. I couldn’t do it. I asked him: How do you fall asleep? He said I should just lie really, really still and I’d drift off. But I couldn’t—even in early grades at school, when you were told to bring in a little mat from home and nap time was a regular part of the school day.

Now, the pandemic lockdown with its erasure of all meaningful tasks is encouraging me to reconsider. A post-lunch nap now seems eminently sensible—and what else is there to do anyway?

A little online research suggests that our current sleep patterns are very much a product of history. The ancients apparently practiced “biphasic sleep”—two periods of sleep with a spell of alertness in between. During the middle-of-the-night period of wakefulness, the ancients attended prayers, had sex, maybe did a few chores, and so forth. But, of course, the absence of much light placed a limit on activity.

The advent of the industrial revolution required workers to keep to a regular and often grueling schedule. Up with the 5 a.m. factory bells, labor for a 12-hour day, then off to home and early bed so you’d be ready for another day. 

Better lighting of streets and residences made longer periods of wakefulness possible. By the end of the 1600s, fifty of Europe’s major cities had candle or oil street lighting, and electric street lighting came to many cities in the late 1800s. (Manhattan had electrical “arc” lighting on its streets by the 1870s, and electrical systems in private houses appeared there in the 1880s, first in the domicile of banker J.P. Morgan.) By the 1920s, doctors were discouraging a biphasic sleep schedule, instead favoring a single eight-hour period of rest. But in Latin America and parts of Europe, biphasic schedules with a built-in post-lunch siesta, are still common.

Apparently, if people aren’t compelled to do otherwise, they gravitate to the two-period sleep pattern.

According to the BBC, in the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr subjected a group of subjects to a daily 14-hour dose of darkness. By the fourth week of the experiment, a distinct sleeping pattern emerged, during which the subjects would doze for four hours, then wake for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep period.

The seasonal variation of sunlight surely has a lot to do with sleep patterns as well. And then there is noise: There’s really no cessation of noise in New York City, with garbage trucks, sirens, and pneumatic drillers liable to punch holes in any sleeper’s schedule. So when we go back to the city in September, we’ll have to revise our sleep patterns all over again. 

Dinner: chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad with avocado.

Entertainment: Netflix’ offbeat Belgian crime drama The Break (La Treve)

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 93

A friend from the Galapagos.

Sunday,  June 14

A turtle appeared in my dreams. A box turtle-size guy, it was dark brown—so dark that it was almost black. And as it lumbered along the ground, a much smaller turtle—about the size of a quarter—jumped from the rear of the larger turtle’s shell. Then another, even smaller turtle emerged. And as the larger fellow continued to walk along, the two little ones began jumping past each other, almost like crickets, they leapt past each other again and again in what seemed to be a game. 

Does such a dream have any meaning—a portent of anything?

Glancing out the French doors in our bedroom, I see a baby cardinal sitting on the stoop. He’s munching on something, for once not hassling its parents about food the way the babies often do. They can be seen flying around in pursuit of mom or dad, all the while squeaking demands. Or sometimes they alight near a parent and whine while eagerly flapping their wings. “Feed me, FEEEED  me!” they seem to be saying, imploring as aggressively as the carnivorous plant in the movie Little Shop of Horrors

There are many box turtles here, but none are brown like the one in my dream. Instead, they are dark green. Once we encountered two in our front yard. It was a nightmarish scene: One turtle’s back foot was somehow trapped inside the shell of another turtle. You could see the entrapped one growing more and more angry, even as the imprisoner seemed willing to let go but somehow unable to do so. We wanted to help, worrying that the angry one might harm the other. But we couldn’t separate them. Then, somehow the entrapped one got loose, and they both wandered away. Since then, we just see single ones, and sometimes they can move very quickly. I think they live in the woods nearby and come out on very hot days hoping to find some water in our yard. Like the birds, they seem excited by the sound of running water.

In other wildlife news, our rabbit reappeared and then disappeared again. The cardinal family is here constantly, as are the very talkative gray catbirds and the usual profusion of finches, chickadees, and titmice. Sometimes we see woodpeckers, who come in three different sizes.

There’s also a young deer in the front yard this morning. A couple of days back, when I was grilling something out on our brick patio, I heard a strange, bleating noise. I thought it must be an unusual bird. Instead, in just a moment a very, very small deer ran right by me, making a weird, I’m-in-distress sound. I’ve never seen such a small deer—at the Westminster Dog Show, it would fit into the “toy” group. 

I always worry about these little animals. There are no predators to keep the numbers of deer down—no predators, at least, aside from automobiles.

Dinner: leftover chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of the Polish TV show The Woods.