A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 137

GOP Convention delegate Kim Jong-un.

Wednesday, August 26

Perfect weather for our Peapod delivery today—a high of 75F and a predicted low tonight of 61. From the preliminary list they sent out, it seems Peapod may actually deliver everything we’ve ordered. On top of that, this morning I received an electronic prompt that enabled me to make an appointment with my regular doctor for the end of next week—something his office has refused to arrange for almost a month, saying that they hadn’t yet “posted” anyone’s schedule for September. (A suggested slogan for that office: “All the bureaucratic drawbacks of the U.K.’s national health care and none of the advantages!”)

Between us, we have scheduled eight appointments with doctors and others, beginning on August 31 and running through September 11. Even if all of these appointments take place with no unexpected negative consequences, we’re wondering if we should stay in the city beyond two weeks—allowing ourselves some time there in self-imposed quarantine. If either of us contracts COVID while there, it might be better to stay in close range of NYC doctors. So maybe we will be there for three weeks; it all requires some pondering.

We’ll carry some foodstuffs back with us, but that won’t last us long. So, having come to accept the Peapod-plus-Damark food supply, we’ll have to discover another provider, as I said in the previous post. 

Trump must be finding his virtual GOP convention very frustrating. It’s getting even lower TV ratings than did the Dems. The performances apparently vary wildly—I’m amazed that anyone can stand to watch. There are the expected over-the-top paroxysms (Kimberly Guilfoyle), the likely illegal bits (Mike Pompeo’s appearance from Israel, MAGA man’s use of the pardon as a political prop), and the cringe-making skits worthy of TV sitcoms (anything involving Melania or Tiffany). They need something to juice up the proceedings: maybe surprise guest appearances from a bare-breasted Vlad Putin or from Kim Jong-un? Or Trump could just fire somebody on camera.

Dinner: ziti with roasted red peppers and feta cheese, lettuce and tomato salad.

Entertainment:  Britbox’ Wild Bill.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 113

The storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Tuesday, July 14

On this Bastille Day, one can make good use of lockdown time by reading historian Robert Darnton’s penetrating essay on the French Revolution, provided via The New York Review of Books. Consider these words, suddenly more apt than ever: “We take the world as it comes and cannot imagine it organized differently, unless we have experienced moments when things fall apart.” In such periods, engulfed in chaos, we face “seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and for evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into tyranny.”

This seems like such a moment, and we can now reimagine American society—but do we have the will and material resources to reconstruct it? Out of the chaos of Trumpian ignorance (‘shine a light in the body”) and dysfunction, a new society can be born. But first, as last night’s dreams inform me, we will have to confront a wasteland of vacant storefronts, abandoned cities, overstocked graveyards, and a disintegrating economy. Mad Max-land in living color.

Darnton also warns us of a possible danger. Along with its inspiring slogans and a will to recreate everything, including not only government and social relations but also time and space (in France, there was a reimagined calendar, new names for streets and buildings, and the sudden adoption of the more rational metric system), “the Revolution unleashed a new force, nationalism, which would mobilize millions and topple governments for the next two hundred years.”

Nationalism, fanatical xenophobia that seeks to rid a land of “impure blood,” remains the potentially most destructive impulse experienced by humankind. Republicans will certainly seek to stir that hornets’ nest in the coming months, in the service of MAGA man and his plutocratic backers. We’re likely to experience a scenario that not even the most imaginative of science-fiction writers would be able to conjure.

Right here and now, we’re imagining yet another Peapod delivery, scheduled for between 3 and 5 p.m. It’s like waiting for a sleigh-load brought by a forgetful or very inefficient Santa: You might get that bike you asked for, maybe even two bikes, but he could easily omit the pants you’ll need if you’re going outside. You have to do a little planning ahead before you can place an order—but once the order comes, those plans may have to be abandoned and new ones made. Yes, bread crumbs but no mushrooms; sure, here’s the pasta but no Parmesan to go with it. What dreams may come?

Dinner: spaghetti with fried eggs and coleslaw.

Entertainment: three episodes of Netflix’ Belgian courtroom drama The Twelve.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 102

Born in the U.S.A.

Thursday, June 25

In Mexico during the 1980s, I encountered other travelers from a variety of places—England, New Orleans, you name it. Among them were two women who seemed a bit withdrawn, prickly, even unfriendly. They spoke English, but with an accent that I couldn’t easily place. After a while it came out: They were South African.

They could have had any number of reasons for staying a bit apart. But I believed that they were embarrassed by their country’s policy of racial oppression, apartheid. Maybe they were secret supporters of the liberation struggle. Maybe Nelson Mandela was a family friend. Who knows? But I think they felt that non-South Africans would regard them as something like neo-Nazis. They probably felt themselves to be pariahs—people who others would shun once their nationality became known.

This could be the fate facing Americans if we ever travel again. 

The European Union is preparing to ban American travelers when it reopens its borders on July 1, lumping the U.S. in with Russia and Brazil in terms of countries that have failed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. First, the U.S. banned EU tourists in mid-March, angering political leaders. Now, Europe has largely contained COVID-19, while new cases in the U.S. are increasing in number. Sweet revenge will prevail, as John Prine once sang.

The EU is considering two draft lists of permissible travelers, and U.S. tourists are included on neither, according to The New York Times.

Moreover, Trump’s disgraceful behavior, and that of his yobbish fans, is sufficient reason for non-Americans to regard us warily. Oh, they may well think: You are the type of people who automatically regard Mexicans as rapists and Central Americans as diseased. Maybe you too hate Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau while admiring Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

We were in Scotland a few years ago, and we rushed to make it clear to our B&B hosts and others that we were non-fans of the Orange man. I think they accepted what we said, and quickly changed the subject to an explanation of Scottish ways and a discussion of places we might like to visit. Oh, are you golfers? We had to make it clear that we weren’t—another reason to find us objectionable.

So, compatriots, steel yourselves for Ugly American status.  Maybe you could wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt or attach a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker onto your rental car. Or maybe COVID-19 will prevent you from ever again traveling abroad.

Tonight’s dinner: Black beans and rice, lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Concluding episodes of season two of Broadchurch.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 79

Bird thou never wert.

Wednesday, May 27

Twitter’s new policy announced on a page called “Updating our Approach to Misleading Information” threatens to undo its claim that it is merely a platform, not a publisher.

Up to now, the social-media giant has been able to say that it had no responsibility for a variety of stuff on its site, ranging from hate crimes to copyright infringement. Now, its executives seem to feel that they have no choice but to behave more like a publisher. And just like, say, The Washington Post or Simon & Schuster, a more active involvement in the content of what’s posted on Twitter necessarily opens them up to legal action by law enforcement and/or aggrieved parties. The social media giant has already been sued by a number of parties, ranging from Congressman Devin Nunez to actor James Woods.

Just how Twitter will finesse these thorny matters will be of considerable interest to society.

The precipitating event for the Twitter policy change came from none other than Mr. MAGA himself, when he tweeted, without providing evidence: “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.” Twitter placed a warning label in Trump’s post and linked to a tag that described the claim as “unsubstantiated.” 

Trump has also been involved in a running feud with MS-NBC anchor Joe Scarborough. He has implied in tweets that “Nut Job” Scarborough was somehow involved in the 2001 death of a staffer, Lori Klausutis, who died from complications of an undiagnosed heart condition while working for Scarborough when he was a Florida congressman. As usual, Trump’s claims regarding Klausutis are bonkers, probably intended as distraction from the COVID-19 fiasco.

What can the orange man do? “Strongly regulate” or “close down” Twitter as he has threatened? Baloney—then what would he do at 3 a.m.? Watch Larry King infomercials? Or maybe old tapes of TV show Playboy After Dark?

Currently, he averages 29 tweets a day and up to 108.

Twitter has Trump’s number—in the same way that he has others’ number. He is a Twitter addict, no more able to shut down Twitter that a junkie could shut down his pusher.

Twitter is also his enabler. Just where did our leader learn this trick of insulting/bullying people to get them to respond and maybe draw attention to himself? From Joe McCarthy or sidekick Roy Cohn? From his own obnoxious, ostentatious father? 

According to Trump Revealed, a biography by Washington Post journalists, Trump was a “loudmouthed bully” in childhood. In school, he was an arrogant overbearing show-off who attacked girls.

Why would such a person appeal to any U.S. voters?

Would you vote for the guy who bullied you in 7th grade? Would you go to a rally for the guy who repeatedly bullied and insulted others? Is it a lynch-mob mentality–if I support him maybe he won’t turn and attack me? I seriously don’t understand the whole Trump phenomenon.

If Obama made you feel a little bit better about America—despite certain policies such as mass deportations—Trump has certainly made lots of people feel much, much worse about our citizenry. 

But now, I’m ranting—right up there with Paula Poundstone.

Tonight’s dinner: All-American hamburgers, baked potatoes with, you guessed it, sour cream. Plus coleslaw.

Entertainment: The Polish cold-war-era policier The Mire.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 38

That obscure object of desire, No. 3: A pangolin in Pakistan

Wednesday, April 15

Not every day can be taken up with anxiety about the pandemic. The global sickness is exhausting.  Statistics, inflated or deflated, are exhausting. (New York City has raised its death count past 10,000 by adding 3,700 more dead who were never actually tested for COVID-19.) Trump, Fauci, Cuomo, and so forth are exhausting, just as Trump, Schiff, Mueller, Pelosi, and those now-forgotten impeachment actors were once exhausting. Could Biden win an election just because people of all political stripes are beyond sick to death of that raspy, hollering, Mar-A-Lago-located larynx? Wouldn’t the MAGA types rather attend a Klan rally than bother to go to the polls?

Yesterday on Twitter, some dissenting soul posted a satirical, Establishment-mocking bumper sticker: BIDEN/Clinton. I almost hurled my Mac Powerbook against the wall.

Did our current troubles really begin with someone eating a bat or a pangolin? Or is it politically incorrect to ask this question? According to the website dawn.com (https://www.dawn.com/news/1485298) the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world: Many Chinese like to eat its meat, and its ground-up scales are valued for alleged aphrodisiac properties and as cures for muscular and joint pain. Just how many other animals are out there posing both dietary temptation and the potential extinction of the human race? And how does one prepare pangolin—stir-fried with garlic, ginger, and oyster sauce? Pangolin with pomegranate molasses? Pangolin marinaded in palm oil and pistachios?

The Times food writers are trying their best, but to quote the Four Tops, their best just ain’t good enough. Today’s culinary treat: “5 Fast Pastas for Long Days.” I know some folks out there have all of the needed ingredients on hand—and the writers say one should feel free to make substitutions. But…pecorino and mint? Chorizo and kale? Garlicky spinach and buttered pistachios? At this point, we’re lucky to have butter alone, and our supply of pecorino was never so very huge.

Yesterday afternoon, Emily and I discovered a silly, edge-of-the-seat thriller on Kanopy, The Night My Number Came Up featuring Michael Redgrave, Denholm Elliott, and several now-forgotten Ealing Studios veterans. A guy has a dream about a plane with eight passengers flying into trouble over Japan. He tells a couple of people about it. Then, of course, the dream begins to come true, as one detail after another falls into place. The plane is lost over sea, the radio fails, fuel runs short, it gets dark and stormy, one obnoxious passenger begins shouting, and…

…and we forgot all our troubles, being absorbed in the passengers’ phony ones.

…and then it was time for dinner!

Dinner tonight: corkscrew pasta with roasted red peppers, goat cheese, and charred walnuts, plus the inevitable green salad with cucumber and the remains of an avocado.

Entertainment: Jazz at Lincoln Center’s streaming video of a Worldwide Concert for Our Culture: musicians from across the planet perform, many from their living rooms. Then another, increasingly unsatisfying episode of Bordertown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 37

Trump opponent John C. Calhoun

Tuesday, April 14

George Wallace and Lester Maddox couldn’t reverse the tide of ever increasing federal power. But Trump’s ineptitude and childish bullying seem to have facilitated a new assertion of states’ rights—coming, oddly enough, from the most liberal corners of the country.

Yesterday, the governors of seven Northeastern states said they would jointly explore just when would be the best moment to reopen their areas’ institutions and economies. The governors of California, Oregon, and Washington said they would likewise begin such a joint examination.

Emperor Trump waved his scepter, saying: I’ll be the one to make that decision. 

The ten governors—all Democrats but one—indicated they’d be ignoring him. 

“When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total,” asserted Mr. MAGA. New York’s Cuomo countered, saying to CNN: “You don’t become king because of a national emergency.”

The governors appear to have the edge here—after all, they were the ones to close their schools and to issue stay-at-home orders. Some weeks back, Trump himself said it was up to local authorities to figure out just how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. And in early April, Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested to CNN that the federal government was remiss in failing to issue a national stay-at home order: “I don’t understand why that’s not happening,” Fauci said. “If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that. We really should be.”

Trump has a problem: He first attempted to defer to right-wing coronavirus skeptics, including the governors of such states as Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. It’s up to you—he said. But now, that weaselly political calculation is running headlong into Trump’s Sun King impulses.  

It’s an unusual position for an alleged American conservative to be taking. One of this country’s early, and most profound, conservative voices was that of John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina and vice-president under Andrew Jackson. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his highly regarded The American Political Tradition, described Calhoun’s faith: “The powers of sovereignty, he contended, belonged of right entirely to the several states and were only delegated, in part, to the federal government.” 

Calhoun, of course, was a slaveholder who worried that the South was losing political sway to the capitalist North—and so he searched for an argument that would help stop that erosion. His solution was “nullification,” or the supposed right of states to refuse to accept federal law within their jurisdiction. The idea was at the center of a constitutional crisis in the 1830s—a crisis that the nullifiers lost. But Calhoun’s states’ rights notions have been central to American conservatism ever since, finding echoes in the words of Barry Goldwater, every southern governor during the civil rights era, and Ronald Reagan.

Trump, of course, sees every development through the lens of his narcissism. His only political principle is self-regard.

Is it time for me to take a walk? I worry a bit that my stamina is suffering as a result of all this staying indoors. Yesterday’s wild weather is gone, and now the sun is trying to shine. But it would be so much easier just to lounge about and read a book.

Tonight’s dinner: the last of the turkey meatloaf, green beans, lettuce-and-cucumber salad.

Entertainment: Two episodes of Finnish cop show Bordertown and one episode of Wales-based Hinterland. How come so many shows now have similar, locale-oriented names?