A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 116

A visitor from another planet–or just a toadstool?

Saturday, July 18

It’s supposed to be hot and dry for the next several days. Limited Internet means I can’t check e-mail or my bank balance easily, nor is it easy to pay bills, so they may have to wait. I’m bringing capitalism to its knees one unpaid bill at a time. Some 25% of New York City residents are believed to be in arrears regarding their rent.

I have now read three Julian Symons mystery novels, each quite unlike the others. I enjoyed The Detling Secret best—a country house mystery set in the late 19th century—then, The Immaterial Murder Case and The Color of Murder. The last of these is a 1950s courtroom drama with an emphasis on psychology, “one of the most acclaimed British crime novels” of that decade, according to the introduction. The penultimate title is a contemporary art-world caper with a Ten-Little-Indians-like, closed circle cast of suspects. It has five sections, each narrated by a different one of these persons. The first, narrated by “the Innocent American,” is very droll, but other sections are sometimes dry and Just the Facts, Ma’am ponderous. I suspect that’s intentional.

I keep thinking I’ll read a Dickens—perhaps Our Mutual Friend or Hard Times. But I’m put off by the length of the novels and the sheer number of characters. Or maybe Mark Twain—Innocents Abroad or Life on the Mississippi. I dunno. Not long back I reread Huckleberry Finn and enjoyed it very much, but something keeps me from these other titles.

A very large number of free e-books are available from http://www.gutenberg.org. I have downloaded and read several Henry James novels: The Lesson of the Master, The Aspern Papers, and Italian Hours. All were quite interesting and not nearly as daunting as the James I have in print, including The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. Maybe I’ll seek out others in e-book format,  when our Internet access improves.

Dinner: chicken salad with apples and walnuts, coleslaw

Entertainment: Final episodes of Netflix thriller London Spy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 111

A school in Cuba: Che, not Ivanhoe

Thursday, July 9

The debate over public school reopening seems to be missing one thing: Kids really do learn a lot on their own. 

Maybe what they learn won’t comply with the official requirements, but kids will continue to learn stuff—and be interested in learning—without any bullying from credentialed teachers or school-board commisars. They get information from their friends. They learn everything from self-discipline to cooking and cleanliness from their parents. If parents are bad role models…well there’s little schools can do to overcome that. 

Home-schooled kids “miss out on learning gains in reading and math relative to in-class instruction,” says Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

Baloney. They miss out on bullying, boredom, snobbery, and enforced conformism.

My own experience probably demonstrates little more than personal frustration. Nevertheless, I must say that I already knew how to read when I went to first grade. They gave me a little, unofficial test, and at age 6, I could read virtually everything in the sixth-grade reader; the only word I didn’t know was “Maria.”

But they decided I shouldn’t “skip” any grades. Consequently, for several years I sat and listened as other students attempted to read out loud, stumbling over words or just sitting for lengthy, agonizing periods of silence.

Did this benefit me or other already-advanced kids? I was supposed to gain some maturity or socialization from being around others my age—but I remained hugely immature and shy.

Up until college, it was much the same. In high school, I learned a lot of math and a little biology—most of which I’ve long ago forgotten. The history classes were almost all taught by football coaches—it seems they needed lots of those. I remember one coach reading the textbook aloud to us—that was his idea of a lecture. As he read, students misbehaved, throwing spitballs or wads of chewing gum at each other. Others dawdled, drawing airplanes with firing machine guns rather than taking notes. Some kids slept.

Another memory is of a study hall, presided over by yet another football coach. He amused himself by digging in his ears with his keys. Then, he’d carefully examine whatever he had managed to remove. Occasionally, he’d pipe up and utter some word of criticism at a perceived miscreant. 

There was compulsory attendance at pep rallies held in the gym. Memphis Central High School’s fight song was performed to the tune of “On Wisconsin”—or was it the Notre Dame Victory March? I guess there were no original melodies in the hometown of Elvis.

Then there was ROTC, or Rot-C as we called the paramilitary marching around while wearing army-surplus duds and toting disabled, WWII-era rifles. What did we learn there? Obedience? That was already a theme in almost all other classes.

There was really only one class I liked—senior English. There, we read the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (And, famously, 40% of the students at my school were Jewish.) I should note that Ivanhoe did have virtues—it celebrated the Che Guevara-like Robin Hood.

Mrs. Davies, the English teacher, made it known that she disapproved of a group of students who, on their own, were reading J.D. Salinger and admiring Bob Dylan. Today, both figures are on the approved list, I gather. Other authors and popular musicians have to bear the load of official disapproval. They cry all the way to the bank.

Dinner: leftover grilled vegetables, Capriccio salad.

Entertainment: Our faulty Internet connection won’t link to Britbox, so two episodes of Netflix’ The Stranger.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 110

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill monument near Pyongyang.

Wednesday, July 8

Who will be memorialized in Trump’s “National Garden of American Heroes”? And even more importantly, just how big and prominent will Trump’s statue of himself be?

Last Friday, Trump issued an executive order concerning his planned memorial park, noting that there will be statues of several presidents and others including Davy Crockett, Amelia Earhart, Billy Graham, Harriet Tubman and Orville and Wilbur Wright. Oh, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Except for Scalia and maybe Tubman, it’s the kind of list that could have been put together for a junior-high term paper on the basis of 1950s television shows, especially those of Walt Disney.

I assume the statue of Orange Man will be executed by a Russian sculptor, surely the same guy who will be doing one of Putin. Or what about a North Korean artist? They understand what’s wanted.

But the problem with statues is they can be smashed or removed—and they invite graffiti and pigeon poop. In Russia, as the Berlin Wall fell, a statue of secret police boss Feliks Dzerzhinsky was dashed to the ground alongside a pink granite statue of Stalin, his face smashed by hammer blows. There are probably warehouses filled with such East Bloc relics, from the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha to the Romanian Nicolae Ceaușescu. (Many of Russia’s are now back in Moscow’s not-altogether-reverent 24-hectare Muzeon Park of Arts, the world’s largest open-air sculpture park.)

I would expect Trump’s park to include likenesses of Jared and Ivanka. And, hey, what about this: product placement! Ivanka could be carrying her $1,540 Max Mara handbag. Jared could have on Ermenegildo Zegna shoes and a Hermes tie. All proceeds could go to charity—such as the Trump Foundation!

And wasn’t this all brought about by the removal of statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest? Those marble guys are looking for new homes—and what could be better than MAGA park?

Dinner: hamburgers, grilled eggplant, onion, and bell peppers, and corn on the cob.

Entertainment: more episodes of the Britbox thriller The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 96

Wednesday and Thursday,  June 17 and 18

Emily is suffering from her chronic back pain. On Wednesday, she was sitting in an upholstered chair with her laptop on her knee, then she went to get up and suddenly, whammo. I suspect she twisted her back as she leaned forward while gripping the laptop, in a combination of muscle exertions that isn’t good. She had trouble hobbling over to the bed where she lay with a cold pack on her spine.

But after taking some Aleve and sleeping at night, today she is a little better. She even did a few leg raises as a physical therapist once instructed.

She has had this back problem off and on for several years. Is is sciatica? Spinal stenosis?

Here is another problem with the lockdown: Sure, you’re avoiding the pandemic but what if a different medical issue arises? Emily now has an August appointment to see a specialist back in New York City. Yesterday, she spent some time online looking for alternatives out here, maybe at Southampton Hospital. Then this back trouble comes along. Should she seek out a physical therapist in East Hampton? 

We’re both doing just too much sitting. We try to take walks, and I do a little yoga. But strangely enough, Manhattan is a more physically demanding place. And now that no one wants to take the subway and even more people are biking, exercise is on the daily agenda. Furthermore, taking the stairs in lieu of an elevator means even more exertion.

Another Peapod grocery delivery is slated for today, sometime after 5 p.m. As I have noted several times before, this is a mixed blessing: good prices and no social mingling but just how much of what we have ordered will really arrive? And there are always surprise omissions.  (This time, not so bad: no Bonne Maman apricot preserves, no scallions, no vitamin D-3, no Haagen-Dazs ice cream, no mixed nuts, and no Aleve.)

I know: In the midst of an international health crisis when thousands are suffering and dying, I should be embarrassed to complain about such tiny matters. But such are the times.

Right now, Emily is watching a Lawline video on prisoners’ legal rights. The presenter has this upward rising inflection at the end of every sentence—the phenomenon that was once associated with Valley Girl teenagers. Now it’s just habitual with many people, but it once carried some kind of implied meaning. Like, “do you know what I mean?” Or maybe it was offered to express a cut-me-some-slack uncertainty: “this is what I think, I hope you agree?”

Lawyers are required to undergo this continuing education in order to renew their legal licenses. I could go into the other room so as to avoid listening—but I’m going to take a shower instead.

Oh, yes: the rabbit reappeared in our yard this morning!

Dinner: Penne with asparagus pesto and a green salad.

Entertainment: Fritz Lang’s silent classic Mabuse the Gambler; episodes of the Netflix damaged-detective series Marcella.

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.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 92

A “works council” in Britain.

Friday,  June 12

It has been over six months since I’ve taken our car in for servicing. So even though it has traveled only a little over two thousand miles since the last oil change, I figure that the car is probably due. In addition, I just received a notice from Subaru that there has been a “safety recall”: Our vehicle “may be equipped with a low-pressure fuel pump assembled with an impeller that may become deformed.” The car could stall out “increasing the risk of a crash.” 

No one wants that. So I called the dealer to make an appointment. In the process, I learned that the service manager that I have dealt with for several years was “no longer with us.” Wha’ happened? The woman I spoke with disclaimed any knowledge (as I suspect she was told to say). The dealership is open, in fact she said, despite the lockdown, they had never closed. Nonetheless, they had been compelled to let several people go.

So in other words, the Riverhead Suburu dealer had taken advantage of the lockdown and coronavirus crisis to lay off a bunch of longtime employees. 

This is likely the norm across corporate America. Never let a good crisis go to waste. Dump ‘em, and the V-shaped recovery of Trumpian fantasy will be hastened.

Only it won’t be. High unemployment and forced retirement means lower consumer spending and a longer recession. What’s good or even necessary for individual employers is not likely to be good for the country as a whole.

Dumping workers is not so easily done everywhere. “Leaders of multinationals need to use all their skills as negotiators, not just their checkbooks, when planning layoffs in the European Union (EU),” according to HR Magazine.

Since 1997, French courts have required companies to lay out “social plans” and may well deem these inadequate if a court disapproves of the time frame for layoffs, the rationale for a reduction in force, or the plans for worker retraining. It is not enough just to pay severance. Nor can companies expect to dictate terms: They must approach worker representatives with a willingness to listen to proposed alternative arrangements.

Negotiations over layoffs are typically long and hard in Spain, where the magazine notes that loss of a job carries significant social stigma. In Britain, many companies must inform and consult with works councils (a set of worker representatives) and with individual affected workers as well. Germany also requires such consultation, and every employer with five or more employees is entitled to have a works council.

Here, of course, in the land of the free, companies can do basically whatever they please. Employers have the right to fire “at will” so long as there is no union, in which case a company generally must demonstrate “just cause” for worker termination. But union membership is at an all time low, now running around 10%.

Dinner: Penne with roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and toasted walnuts, along with a green salad.

Entertainment: Icelandic film A White, White Day.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 90

A high-point of 20th century satire, the Kubrick-Southern movie “Dr. Strangelove”

Wednesday,  June 10

“History will be kind to me,” said Winston Churchill on the eve of his retirement, “for I intend to write it.”

But who will write the history of our current, event-chocked and confusing period? It’s difficult to think of any elected official whose voice, or recollections, we need to hear. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, maybe, in 40 years? We’re more likely to hear from Trump hacks or unreliable, wacky narrators such as Senators Rand Paul or Ben Sasse. Certainly numerous science and politics journalists, from the Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. and Maggie Haberman to The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, are likely sharpening their pens and memories. And of course publishers would kill to have a book by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or even the much-quoted Vanderbilt University infectious-disease expert Dr. William Schaffner. (Unsurprisingly, there is a “coming wave of coronavirus books,” according to The New York Times.)  

But only time will reveal the true meaning of our triple-crisis.

When the Nixon administration was wooing China back in the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger reportedly asked China’s No. 2 man Zhou Enlai for his evaluation of the French revolution. “Too soon to say,” Zhou allegedly responded, possibly mishearing Kissinger’s query. But it was a profound response anyway—nearly two centuries had passed since the French events and it was perhaps yet too soon to offer an evaluation of Robespierre, Saint-Just, Danton, Marat, the sans-culottes, the Terror, the Committee of Public Safety, Thermidor, and ultimately Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even with the passage of time, some questions from our current period may never be answerable. This began, of course, with a health crisis presided over by a number of incompetent and would-be authoritarian governments, eliding into an international protest movement against racial injustice. Just how were these related? The health crisis hit minority communities hardest. Did that fact encourage the protest movement? Just how did the witlessness of Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, etc. feed into the worldwide protests that remain centered on U.S. police brutality against African Americans? 

What about the lockdown? Did thousands rebel against social isolation by going out into the streets to demonstrate? Did job losses and recession have anything to do with the looting—or was that just a crime of opportunity?

And what about the possibly astro-turfed protests against the lockdown by weapons-toting yobs? “I need a haircut!” shouted one such profoundly thoughtful youth. Some of these not-so-well-attended gatherings, it turned out, were coordinated by the likes of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

But were all of them phony? Or has an anti-science, quasi-anarchistic tendency arrived as a permanent part of the U.S. political scene?

It has become a commonplace saying in the Trump years, “you can’t make it up.” It doesn’t get any more absurd than all of this.

Which means that developments are ripe for a satirical rendering. Writers such as Joseph Heller and filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick/Terry Southern found fertile material in the Masters of War death cult surrounding World War II and the cold war. (I made my own attempt at Jonathan Swiftish satire a few days back in chapter 88 of this blog.) Some writer is out there now, scribbling down an outlandish, weirded-out version of the bedlam that’s unfolding daily.

Dinner: leftover steak, baked potatoes and sour cream, coleslaw.

Entertainment: The slow-moving Polish policier The Crime.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 89

Will I be permitted?

Monday and Tuesday, June 8 and 9

To get rid of refuse at the town dump, you must have a permit prominently displayed on your car. On the East Hampton Town website, it says the old permits remain good “until further notice.” But this morning, when I went to the dump, I was told by a staffer at the gatehouse that this was inaccurate. I must apply for a new permit—mine would be expiring on June 15. 

This can only be done by mail, since all Town offices are closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown. You must fill out an application, send a check for the required fee, and include a copy of the relevant documents demonstrating that you are indeed a resident of the Town.

There’s the rub: The required document is a copy of your auto’s state registration, showing a local address. But where to get a photocopy made, since many businesses remain closed? I spent the morning in a fury at this assinine requirement as I searched around for a copier—and that meant going out more in public than I have for many weeks. There was no copy machine at the post office, nor at the nearby CVS drugstore, although someone there said she thought there was a place on Newtown Lane near the Stop & Shop supermarket. I tried a computer fix-it place, and they said to try the UPS store down the street. Success! And after only four once-discouraged conversations.

Got the xerox copy, swung by the Chase Bank ATM to get some much-needed cash, then back to the P.O. to mail in the recycling-center form. Oh, and while at CVS I snagged some TOILET PAPER!!!

The center of East Hampton appeared about as busy as any other weekday woud be in any other month of June. Many stores remain closed, but there were plenty of cars in the main parking lot and apparently lots of business going on. At the post office and UPS, there were lines of people—most wearing masks, many waiting to mail large packages. Stuff they had bought online and were now returning, perhaps?

I did all this while wearing my snazzy tartan face mask and lavender rubber gloves, beneath a coif befitting a cast member from the musical Hair. Except there were no gray mop tops in the ‘60s love-rock song fest.  No geezers allowed in the Age of Aquarius.

Will there be anyone at the town clerk’s office to receive my letter and mail me the dump sticker? Only time will tell, but I doubt that this drama will be concluded by the 15th.

Tonight: London broil, marinated in red wine, garlic, and olive oil, plus baked potatoes with sour cream, and green salad with avocado. Sounds artery-clogging and all-American for sure.

Entertainment: Polish alt-history thriller 1983.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 87

Citizen Kane’s vast collection of junk.

Saturday, June 6

We’re missing a bunch of stuff that’s at the apartment. Thanks to our leased auto, we get the satellite-music channel Sirius both in the car and on a laptop. But one would like to have a little more control over music, and that means recordings that aren’t necessarily out here. There are various cooking equipment items, and a store of pantry supplies, back in New York. And, especially as the weather changes, there are some clothes that we each need.

Accordingly, each of us has begun making lists of things we would retrieve from the apartment if we ever go there again:

Thelonious Monk—Underground
Thelonious Monk—Misterioso
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Kenny Barron Trio—Book of Intuition
Charlie Haden and Christian Escoude—Duo
The Beatles—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Dr. John—Gumbo
and plenty more I am sure

Tramontina nonstick skillet
immersion blender
herbs and spices: turmeric, paprika, bay leaves, oregano
grains: wheatberries, quinoa, Irish oatmeal

computer printer
photo scanner
alarm clock

Hardy’s shorts
polo shirts
Emily’s bathrobe
hiking boots

throw pillows

What about old photos, including my mother’s photo albums? It would be nice to have digital scans of my parents in their young adulthood, my sister, my own school photos, and more. 

And there are hundreds of books. In writing this journal, I’ve drawn on many books that are out here, but there are loads more that I am missing. Still, there’s hardly any place to put them here.

If we were really going to move here semi-permanently, we’d want to bring old tax records and other documents. Just going through such stuff would constitute a major project. Thinking about that makes one despair—someday, maybe, I’ll hire someone to help me winnow down the boxes of documents used in writing books, old medical records, insurance papers, and bank records.

My stuff doesn’t exactly compare with the miles of possessions shown at the end of Citizen Kane, but there is plenty. Which makes one wonder: What do landlords or building managers do with the huge stores of possessions left behind by the victims of the pandemic? Relatives are encouraged to come and claim it all, no doubt—but what if they don’t? Is there a small industry disposing of unwanted stuff? And what did civilization do before the invention of paper shredders?

Dinner: Broccoli stir-fry with chicken and mushrooms, white rice.

Entertainment: the final episodes of the Belgian policier The Break.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 86

Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

Friday, June 5

“Time…was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate….If Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow?”

 —W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

We humans are hardly the only creatures whose days are linked to the sun’s light. The wild rabbit in our yard has customarily been awake and munching on our lawn when I get up between 6:30 and 7 a.m. But today, he didn’t show his face until around 4 p.m. 

Rabbits are crepuscular creatures, Emily reads to me, generally spending their days snoozing in their holes below ground, only to emerge in the late afternoon or early evening, when the light is low. 

Out here in the country, much more than in the city, my daily habits are linked to the light, which streams in through our large windows in the morning. In Manhattan, you find a way to block out or amplify light, according to your wants. And you grow accustomed to the fact that noise is always present.  

Electric light, of course, made it possible for humans to exert absolute control over time. But before electricity, it was capitalism that prompted an urge toward time management: Workers in early U.S. industrial towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, were quite aware that they were required to report on time in the morning, take no more than 15 minutes to consume meals, and accept the fact that management was always stretching out the length of the work day. In 1856, one mechanic wrote to that city’s reformist newspaper, The Voice of Labor, that bosses had “fixed” the mill clock, so that it slowed down to add minutes to the laboring day, then sped up at night to summon operatives early. In Pawtucket, Rhode Island, citizens raised $500 to purchase a town clock that would not be subject to the manipulation suspected of the factory clock.

And it was that quintessential capitalist development, the railroad, that imposed time zones across the U.S. and the synchronization of different cities’ clocks. How else could train timetables exist? 

Does the COVID-19 lockdown threaten to break down the dictatorship of the clock? I doubt it. Probably like me, many folks go about with their watches still strapped to their arms. They may not get out of their pajamas until afternoon—or maybe not at all—but they know more or less what time it is. Their smart phones or computers or smart watches keep them in line.

Just now, I looked at the top of my MacBook Pro and found that it was 5:53 p.m.—time to begin making dinner.

Tonight it will be: leftover lentil soup, corn muffins, and a lettuce salad with cucumber, cherry tomatoes, and avocado.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Belgian thriller The Break.