A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 131

Wednesday, August 12

The telephone visit with the NYU neurologist failed. I waited by our phone for an hour—no call. I telephoned the NYU switchboard via a cell phone—so as not to tie up the landline—and gave someone the East Hampton phone number that the neurologist should be using, just in case there was any confusion. That operator seemed to be taking the phone number down very carefully, asking about it more than once. 

No-go. Later I checked with our Manhattan voice mail and found that the doctor had called me there three times. 

Why? I can only guess that this is another software-induced screw-up. No matter what I told the switchboard or the doctor’s assistant, the doctor relied on the “personal information” in the NYU computer system, which has our Manhattan phone number as primary. It’s probably set up so that she only has to push one button and that number is dialed.

Did the switchboard pass on my frantic messages? We’ll never know. 

The Netflix program Wasp Network is interesting on many fronts. It is an account of Cuban spies in the 1990s, posing as refugees and attempting to infiltrate anti-Castro Cuban-expat groups in Florida. One object of their infiltration was the group “Brothers to the Rescue,” which with its fleet of private planes, sometimes helped rafters attempting to escape Cuba. But the Brothers group also enjoyed prankster flyovers of Havana, rubbing Fidel’s nose in it, as it were. According to the movie, Brothers was also closely tied to the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation, to terrorist outfits that planted bombs in Havana hotels, and to Cuban-expat groups that ran drugs into the U.S. from Central America.

It’s rather a wonder that such a film, openly sympathetic to the pro-Castro Cubans, could even be made or shown in America. It’s hardly a low-budget job: directed by Olivier Assayas, the film features such box-office draws as Penelope Cruz and Gael Garcia Bernal. Perhaps the success of the cable-TV show The Americans, which features Soviet spies as its central and sympathetic characters, encouraged Netflix to stream Wasp Network. And like any good spy thriller, the film has a considerable measure of drama, suspense, and human interest. It’s just not anti-Communist. How is that possible?

Our end-of-the-day Peapod grocery delivery went well. There were few “out-of-stock” omissions, and surprisingly we got a large supply of Bounty paper towels. 

Dinner: leftover pork chops, corn on the cob, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Scandinavian film Out Stealing Horses with Stellan Skarsgard.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 70

Norwegian Vidkun Quisling along with SS head Heinrich Himmler.

Monday, May 18

If you have been reading this blog, you can’t have missed the fact that we’re seeing plenty of streaming video. One show that we’ve watched a lot—two and a half seasons’ worth—is the Netflix Norwegian political thriller Occupied.

It’s like The Sorrow and the Pity as penned by Greenpeace.

And it’s a bit hard to watch because of its length and also because you are forced to ponder whether you can believe what any of the principals say or even understand what motivates them.

Here’s the idea. Norway, which controls a big portion of the North Sea oil and gas reserves, elects a Green Party government, which says it’s going to turn off the carbon-fuel taps to the rest of Europe.

Immediately, the Russian army takes over Norway’s oil and gas fields. They kidnap the Norwegian prime minister, Jesper Berg—and you see him quickly back down on his campaign pledges. Crucially, the Russians have the support of the European Union, which worries about the effect of a fuel shutoff.

Russian apparatchiki, working out of that country’s Oslo embassy, assert more and more influence over Norway’s affairs. Russia’s strong-willed, manipulative, and wily ambassador enlists the head of the country’s secret police as an ally. She bullies various members of the Norwegian political establishment and E.U. governmental leaders, always seeming to get her way.

A Norwegian resistance movement appears. Its initial rallying cry is “Free Our Soldiers,” since Norwegian coast guardsmen who attempted to liberate one fuel installation were taken prisoner by Russian troops. A more formal group that includes much of the Norwegian military appears: Free Norway. Jesper Berg joins with them.

But a lot of the show’s Norwegian principals collaborate with the Russians. Some believe they have no choice–and invent idealistic reasons for their behavior. Others do so to avoid outright war against the formidable Russian army. Still others simply follow the path of least resistance while also feathering their own nests. Compromise and collaboration infect the whole society. Before long, Free Norway appears subjugated. An opportunist politician becomes the new prime minister.

But just as his life seems in peril, Jesper Berg escapes, first to Poland and then to France. He rallies support from a number of Eastern European countries and begins making his way back to Norway aboard a Polish ship. Russian warships establish a blockade—but he refuses to surrender and the Russians give way. He returns to Oslo, appears to negotiate a coalition government with the puppet P.M.—and then, she is assassinated.

Except for the last part, doesn’t this sound a lot like Nazi-collaborationist Vichy France—and the sharp-elbowed, egomaniacal Charles de Gaulle? Or perhaps like Norway’s own experience with Nazi collaboration: the regime there was headed by Vidkun Quisling, whose very name has become synonymous with collaboration. Many of the Occupied characters see themselves as being motivated by lofty ideals—but we can see that everyone is actually motivated by base self-interest.

The Sorrow and the Pity is Marcel Ophuls’ lengthy 1969 documentary about the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy regime. That film obliterated the notion, commonly held in France, that almost no French people collaborated with the German occupiers. But in Ophuls’ film, the many collaborators come across as wormy and cowardly. Occupied is actually more nuanced, allowing viewers to see things from the collaborators’ self-justifying points of view. 

Tonight’s dinner: pasta with roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts along with a lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: two more episodes of Occupied, plus one installment of Our Planet.

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 47

Friday, April 24

When I saw the Times headline “Goofing Around as a Way of Life,” I assumed the article was a look at the way most corinavirus-quarantined people are existing today. Instead, it examines a documentary film on the rap group Beastie Boys. But the headline could be applied broadly: Most Americans are now just whiling away their days—or as one friend put it, “Netflixing through the apocalypse.”

We’re all confined to quarters, much like misbehaving adolescents or soldiers who overstayed their weekend passes. Maybe pandemic living would be much the same under any social system, but to wax pretentious for a moment, it has made me recall a classic Marxist work, Henri Lefebvre’s multi-volume The Critique of Everyday Life. Perhaps existence would be less tedious had capitalism not turned everyday life into a zone of sheer consumption. We have come to expect to be diverted, fed, dosed, or sexually stimulated on a regular basis. At the same time, to quote French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, middle-class life has been stripped of almost all adventures—except for adultery, as Godard suggests in several pictures. Even prior to the pandemic, life for most people in the developed world was just damn boring. 

Speaking of zones of sheer consumption, the pandemic seems about to put the final kibosh on department stores. Lord & Taylor closed its Manhattan flagship store some months back, and now the glamorous Neiman Marcus is declaring bankruptcy. All consumption seems to be moving into the Jeff Bezos zone.

In step with that zeitgeist, yesterday we received five shipments via U.S. Mail: two law books for Emily, a new can opener, a set of towels, and some disposable face masks. More fashionable face masks are yet to arrive. And thanks to my clumsy ordering, eBay has shipped a large Johnson & Johnson’s bath powder to the NYC apartment. We are still dwelling in a zone of sheer consumption—although we’re consuming some different things thanks to COVID-19.

Today, for the third day in a row we’ve had cream of wheat for breakfast. Items from our last Peapod order can be released this afternoon from their own quarantine—meant to facilitate the death of any viruses left on their containers. So our diet may improve a bit. But thinking ahead, I believe we will continue to have some meals consisting of Progresso soup, potatoes, and green salad. Despite all of the mandated sloth, I may have lost a bit of weight.

It is raining hard. Emily is about to listen to a Weill Cornell Hospital podcast on cancer and COVID-19. Pretty cheery stuff, I must say. Maybe I will attempt to read chapter two of Crime and Punishment, also a cheery prospect.

Our bread machine is working away, producing a loaf of light whole wheat bread. It will be ready around 2 p.m., and that is something to look forward to.

Beyond that, there’s tonight’s dinner: more chicken paprikash, noodles, and salad.

Tonight’s entertainment: More of The Hunters and one episode of Four Seasons in Havana, a policier set in Cuba.