A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 252

Saturday, February 5

The beach was approached via a patch of jungle-like palm trees which grew, however, out of the inevitable sand. There was a footworn path which he followed. A few metal poles, perhaps from an abandoned children’s playground, stuck up out of the sand and were encrusted near the top with small white snails fastened tightly like barnacles. The metal was so hot, he could barely touch it….He went into the water, swam out until he felt slightly tired, then turned back. The water was shallow quite far out.

What a pleasure amid all this wintry weather to read about someplace warm. The above is from Patricia Highsmith’s 1993 novel The Tremor of Forgery, which is set at a beach resort town in Tunisia. Previously, I read Andrea Camilleri’s final Inspector Montalbano mystery, Riccardino, also set in a warm place, Sicily. I think I’ll keep up this trend through February, staving off the cold at least mentally. 

Unlike Highsmith’s more famous works, The Tremor of Forgery is not diabolical, nor does it involve sociopathic characters. I keep waiting for such folks to appear, but 200 pages in, they have not.

In other reading, the current issue of The New Yorker (February 7) contains a review essay on “the Method,” the style of acting that became popular in the 1950s. I well remember television talk shows during which Johnny Carson or some such host would ask one of his celebrity guests to explain method acting. And of course they would try. What Alexandra Schwartz’ article reveals is that no one can really explain it: Its practitioners and teachers had as many doctrinal differences as psychotherapists or Marxist revolutionaries. 

The whole thing began with Russian guru Konstantin Stanislavski, who set out to reform his country’s stage actors, who he thought were bombastic and stiff. New Yorker Lee Strasberg, a bookkeeper and theater aficionado, was exposed to Stanislavski’s handiwork via a New York performance of the Moscow Art Theatre. He enrolled in an acting school where Stanislavski disciples taught—and by 1930, Strasberg himself was delivering lectures on thespian-hood. Others, including Stella Adler, thought that Strasberg was imperious, “sick and schizophrenic.” So, she too, attracted acolytes and began teaching the craft…but of course differently from Strasberg.

Strasberg, famously, wanted his students to comb through their lives for deep emotional moments—and use these, when appropriate, on stage.  Instead, Adler said they should just use their imaginations.

Schwartz doesn’t neglect two figures who she says really put the Method on the public map: Marlon Brando, an Adler student and actor now known to everyone who ever saw a movie, and Elia Kazan, who won fame as the director of On the Waterfront and as an anticommunist, name-naming witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ultimately, the Method’s students were legion: James Dean (who Marlon Brando regarded as a copycat), Montgomery Clift, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Anne Bancroft, and tons of others.

What begins as a revolution can become a conventional practice—and mere fodder for possibly apocryphal anecdotes. The 1976 film Marathon Man pitted two cinema legends—each an embodiment of a different approach to acting—against each other: the second-generation Method sensation Dustin Hoffman and the traditionalist legend Laurence Olivier. It is said that, to prepare for a scene in which he was to appear exhausted, Hoffman went out for a strenuous jog. Olivier found this curious, prompting Hoffman to ask what he did to get in character for a role. “I pretend,” Olivier is said to have responded.

Dinner: an Amy’s frozen pizza, salad, and the addictive tapioca pudding.

Entertainment: The Bertrand Tavernier movie The Clockmaker of St. Paul on Kanopy.


A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 238

New York City’s skyline at Union Square.

Sunday, November 14

“The time in bed was more work than rest,” writes Nick Paumgarten in a recent New Yorker article.

I often feel that way—the result probably of my grueling, sweaty-sheet-inducing dreams, which make me want to get up and get out of bed and drag the comb across my head. 

But if I get up, I need a nap.

Paumgarten’s article is about how these days, many people say they frequently feel tired and wonder how they might get more energy. The article is a fairly deep dive into the science of humans’ metabolic system, with little visits to the research of Columbia University behavioral-medicine doctors, California cardiologists, and blast-from-the-past psychic frontiersmen like Franz Mesmer and orgone box inventor Wilhelm Reich.

You remember Reich, no? His orgone accumulator drew Age of Aquarius public attention because it was said to enhance orgasms, among other things. He was around in the 1950s, when such sex talk was scorned and drew the attention of our very own Torquemada, a.k.a. J. Edgar Hoover. Reich was ultimately jailed for shipping orgone boxes across state lines and died in the federal pen in 1957.

Anyway, anyway. 

Emily and I are back in Gotham, experiencing our very own Inquisition at the hands of a variety of dentists and physicians. Between us we have something like ten appointments scheduled near term. The dentist appointments—which feature numerous fillings, crown-fittings and root canals—are particularly pressing since my former employer, now wearing the guise of S&P Global, recently announced in an 8-point-type form letter that they were canceling our dental insurance. 

The other day, I walked over to my Eighth Avenue gym, where thanks to United Health Care I still enjoy a membership, and was denied admission since I did not have proof of COVID vaccination with me. 

Now on the one hand, I endorse their uncompromising, pro-science stand. On the other hand, since in the past my locker there has been broken into and possessions stolen, I wouldn’t dare carry the much-envied “COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card” anywhere near New York Sports Club.

So I came back to the apt and downloaded an app for the New York State Excelsior Pass, which certifies that I have indeed had the jabs. I hope that will do the trick.

Mind you, it does suggest that Big Brother is watching, just as the anti-vaxxers say. Precisely what other info does the Excelsior pass contain, I wonder?

The time approaches for the visit of our niece, Montana, who intends to get a COVID test on her way over. Then, we will have a feast of croissants, Italian prune plums, guacamole, fresh apple cider, and more. You just can’t get these things in Kansas City, no matter how up to date that place is. (Maybe Cinnabon or Dunkin’ is just as good. You bet.)

Dinner: If we’re not too stuffed from brunch, it will be spaghetti Bolognese and salad.

Entertainment: Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries via Kanopy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 236

Support the occupied factories!

Sunday, October 31

I have not seen Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch (available only in theaters), but I look forward to doing so. Centered on a fictional but nonetheless familiar magazine based in Paris and greatly resembling The New Yorker, the film has drawn glowing notices in the Times and—surprise, surprise—The New Yorker. The flick consists of four narratives—one featuring a reporter, another considering an imprisoned painter, another looking at life via the eyes of a James Baldwin-like writer, and finally, one focusing on a 1968 Paris Spring student firebrand.

Anderson is perhaps the most literature-influenced film director since Jean-Luc Godard. His previous movie The Grand Budapest Hotel drew inspiration from the work of once-popular and now largely forgotten novelist Stefan Zweig. This time around, Anderson has reportedly instructed his actors—including such regulars as Owen Wilson and Bill Murray along with the suddenly ubiquitous Lea Seydoux—to check out the writings of Mavis Gallant, a Paris-based New Yorker writer of yore.

But why? Gallant certainly knew her way around a stylus; her Paris-scribbled short stories are impressive even if they focus on such uninspiring protagonists as a former German POW, a nose-to-the-grindstone Riviera hotelkeeper, and a hard-pressed art dealer. She also penned very lengthy dispatches about the 1968 events that ran as a two-part feature in The New Yorker. These are likely what Anderson had in mind when advising his cast. And there’s where the problem lies: The jottings capture the flavor of events but give us little more. 

So what did Gallant make of 1968’s happenings? It’s not altogether clear.  Gallant’s “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook” adopts the form of a diary, with entries focusing on the garbage in the streets, food shopping and shortages, disruptions of daily life, the looks of the protesters and of the Gaullist counter-demonstrators, radio news reports, her own dreams, and brief conversations held with a range of friends and frenemies. 

She is stingy with her compliments. “Why do they keep on about Marcuse? Except for Z.’s dentist friend, no one even knows who he is,” she kvetches. “How can you talk about the Spanish Civil War to people who don’t even know what happened in 1958, or 1961, or what the O.A S. was about?” she whines.

But if she finds the student protesters unwashed and uninformed, the pro-de Gaulle counter-protesters are even less admirable. A vast May 30, Champs-Élysées-filling right-wing crowd has only summoned the courage to turn out, she believes, because the French army now has tanks and troops surrounding Paris.

“I am acutely unhappy at the slogans I am hearing: ‘La France aux français,’La police avec nous.’ I find this ugly. When I heard the students last week shouting ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!’ I thought they were speaking to their parents. Today the parents answer: ‘La France aux français.’” 

At their rallies, the young folks were idealistic; these revanchists are repellent. “I liked those kids. They were generous, and they were very brave. And when they shouted a slogan they were always asking for some sort of justice, usually for someone else. What is generous about ‘La police avec nous’?” Afterwards, Gallant only regains her equilibrium via “an enormous dinner with floods of wine.”

In the end, the writer offers no real stock-taking of the May events and their consequences. There is, she says, “No explosion de joie, as papers suddenly have it—just depressed feeling, as after an illness.” News reports convey the notion that the whole thing had been nothing but a game. As if by magic, the gasoline stations suddenly have plenty of petrol, the shops have lots of food and once-scarce sugar, and an “enormous tricolor is hung from the top of the Arc de Triomphe—[the] flag usually kept for July 14th and important state occasions.”

People ask themselves: What has been gained exactly? The “tone of conversations is relief, bewilderment, disappointment, fatigue. It is like the feeling after a miscarriage—instant thanksgiving that the pain has ceased, plus the feeling of zero because it was all for nothing.” 

And that’s about all Gallant has to offer in the way of evaluation. And yet May of 1968–with its factory occupations, three-week General Strike involving 10 million people, and near overthrow of Charles de Gaulle—lives on as a stirring inspiration to progressives: “be reasonable—demand the impossible,” as one Paris graffito had it. Perhaps Mavis was simply too exhausted to deliver much more than she did.

Dinner: Pasta e ceci and a green salad.

Entertainment: Britbox’ policier The Long Call.

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 2020–chapter 65

A roadside sculpture in Springs, N.Y.

Wednesday, May 13

You see it at every time of year on the East End, particularly in our East Hampton neighborhood of Springs: ART.

Situated in driveways or front yards, there are a lot of metal sculptures, often painted a first responder orange or some other eye-catching hue. There are beach-ball size metal spheres, metal-beam uprights, even an abstract cut-out that in some Marcel Duchampesque world is said to resemble a deer. There are frequent shows of local artists’ work at the former schoolhouse that’s now an exhibition and lecture space known as Ashawagh Hall.

This past weekend, 52 artists from Hampton Bays to Montauk staged an exhibition on their porches and lawns, “Drive-by-Art (Public Art in This Moment of Social Distancing).” One artist’s contribution consisted of steel-wool octopuses positioned in her hedgerow. Another offered canvas-wrapped posts set six feet apart along her lawn. Art-world shock jock and Whitney museum fave Eric Fischl provided life-size sculptures of dancing nymphs at his Sag Harbor home. All of the works were meant to be admired by art lovers who were socially distanced from each other inside their vehicles.

Ever since the late 19th century, artists have been coming out to the East End, drawn by the light, the isolation, and the presence of wealthy buyers. Portraitist and landscape painter William Merritt Chase followed his rich friends out in the 1890s, setting up a studio and a school near Southampton. Belmonts, Carnegies, Astors, and Vanderbilts helped defray his costs.

The successful impressionist painter Childe Hassam purchased an East Hampton house in 1919, joined the Maidstone Club, and tooled about in a chauffeur-driven limo.

More famous today are the abstract expressionists who began arriving some twenty-five years later. These folks experienced the same lures as previous artists—plus that of the then-cheap real estate. Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived in Springs from 1945 until Pollock died drunk in a car crash along Fireplace Road in 1956. Pollock created his anarchic, improvisational drip paintings both on a concrete slab in the yard behind the couple’s farmhouse and also in a nearby barn. Today, the house is the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, administered by Stony Brook University. You can visit the place, wander through the small cottage, and even enter the barn, where the floor is considered such a work of art that visitors must don protective rubber shoes.

Krasner produced widely varying work—including abstract art, collage, and postmodern pieces—into the 1970s. She died in 1984 at age 75.

Willem de Kooning also lived in Springs, not far from Pollock/Krasner starting in 1961. He, too, is remembered as an abstract expressionist, but on the East End, he developed a new style, erotic and lyrical. He built a large, industrial-style studio across from the Green River Cemetery. And his work was the subject of a series of major shows in New York and Europe.

 By the late 1980s, De Kooning was still painting but suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1997, at 92 years of age.

Other creative people also lived nearby in Springs, including New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling and his wife, novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer Jean Stafford. The very funny Liebling is one of my favorite writers, and his New Yorker “press clips” columns offer an indelible look at 20th century American journalism.

Enough with the local history. 

I’ve fallen into this subject as, like everyone else, I have so little to do these days. You wake up, read the paper, have a small lunch, take a walk, and then it’s time to make dinner and watch videos. The weeks scamper by—we’ve been out here for almost ten weeks now and it’s hard to ever imagine a return to NYC.

Dinner: leftover lentil soup, and salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Bordertown.