A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 235

The last bloom of…autumn?

Sunday, October 17

When does a piece of writing become interestingly historical—and when is it annoyingly quaint? Perhaps that’s the same question as one once posed by John Banville: When does the past truly become the past?

“How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?” Banville asks in his Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir. “Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream.”

Sitting on some shelf around here, unread, there’s a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 book The Corrections, and I’ve considered giving it a go.  But today’s Times review of Franzen’s new book, Crossroads, has persuaded me that the older book has not aged well. Reviewer Thomas Mallon speaks of The Corrections’ “mosaic of a still-twin-towered world, gluing in all of its diskettes and antennaed cellphones.”

Cringe. I didn’t like that period when we lived through it—with its “greed is good” mantra and all that celebrating of the rich and combat-ready. So I have little wish to revisit it now. 

All the same, I do enjoy reading old bits of prose that evoke periods of yore. Recently, for example, I read Joseph Conrad’s astonishing short story “Youth.” That 1898 tale begins with a group of English gentlemen sitting around a mahogany table, sharing glasses of wine as “Marlowe,” now an accomplished lawyer, tells a hair-raising story of his disaster-prone first sea voyage, back when he was 20 years of age. 

Marlowe had signed on aboard the Judea—about 400 tons, laid up in dry dock for a long period and consequently “all rust, dust, grime—soot aloft, dirt on deck.” But the ship is bound for that land of enchantment—Bangkok!

A gale hits before they can get well out to sea, and they spend 16 days just reaching Newcastle. Soon, they smash into a steamer—meaning another three weeks’ delay. Then finally underway, they fall victim to another gale, blowing “with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. The world was nothing but an immensity of great foaming waves rushing at us….”

Amid the tumult of the cruel ocean, Judea‘s crew mans the pumps—all day, all night, all the week. “We turned those handles, and had the eyes of idiots.” (After several days of unheroic but taxing physical labor around here, I can certainly relate; your brain begins reeling and it’s all you can do to stare vacantly into space. More on this later.) “It seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity….”

And yet “there was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure—something you read about….I would not have given up the experience for worlds.”

They were still not out of England. Six months have elapsed, a third crew has been recruited, and small boys laugh at their plight. Back in London, the underwriters and the owner consider scuttling the whole venture. 

Well, many more disasters await the Judea—until its cargo of coal finally catches alight and explodes. 

“Youth” could perhaps have been made into a classic film by one of the silent-screen comedic geniuses—or even by French new wave master Claude Chabrol, whose specialty, a critic once said, was slapstick tragedy. Conrad’s writing is as visual, rousing, frustrating, and frightening as any movie masterpiece.

You take your thrills where you can get them. I, meanwhile, have spent several days washing the filthy, pollen-encrusted windows of this house. So far, I have cleansed 20 mullioned windows and three glass-paned doors. Eight large windows remain…but they may receive no more than a lick and a promise, as my mother often said. My shoulders and hands ache and my mind has all but collapsed. Bring on the entertainment!

Tonight’s dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Hulu’s courtroom drama Silk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 234

Monday, October 11

It’s impossible to get away from discussions about climate catastrophe nowadays. Even some New Yorker short stories assume a bleak, terrifying future with an all-but-uninhabitable planet: The Oct. 11 issue includes Karen Russell’s “The Ghost Birds,” which depicts a world with constant West Coast forest fires and depleted of all avian critters. 

Today, as I drove to the East Hampton recycling center to unload a bunch of rotting garbage and empty plastic bottles, BBC Radio aired a program that seemed aimed directly at me, the small-time eco-criminal. Richard Deverell, the head of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens (otherwise known as Kew Gardens), discussed climate change and his institution’s role in educating the public on the matter. Deverell offered one observation that struck home: Quoting the Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford, he noted that a key problem arises whenever one seeks to call climate change a crisis. 

When you get up and see that it’s a lovely, cool fall morning, the world certainly doesn’t seem to be in crisis. You don’t run out the door screaming as you would if the house were on fire or if you were under attack from a violent intruder. But that’s probably just how we should be reacting. Climate activist Greta Thunberg certainly thinks so.

And when it’s not raining, it certainly has been lovely here on Long Island. Our heating technician recently called and pronounced our furnace ready to face another harsh winter. There are plenty of acorns around and lots of berries on the holly trees—indications, some say, of a cold and difficult season on the way. I already have a store of burlap in waiting to wrap the boxwoods as protection against moisture-robbing winds. I also have plans to re-pot and bring inside some of the thyme and basil that are still flourishing outside. 

Our grocery delivery service continues it’s uneven performance. This week, they said our requested sun-dried tomatoes, camomile tea, and gelato were all out-of-stock. These shortfalls, along with our reduced supplies of cash money and coffee, mean that we will shortly be forced to venture into downtown (hah!) East Hampton and go to the bank and fancy-food emporium Citarella. But such are the crises we face here in Lotus Land. After forty years of living in Manhattan, where every day entails a sweaty subway scrum and street-crossing deathmatch, it’s hard to believe that millions of Americans live this life of ease…at least until the next flash flood or hurricane hits.

Dinner: turkey meatloaf, Brussels sprouts, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Having completed a many-episode viewing of the excellent 1990s Britbox drama Our Friends in the North, we’ll have to come up with something new. There’s Hulu’s Reservation Dogs (Native American kids shoplift and scrimp as they plan their escape from a run-down Oklahoma res) or Netflix’ Gentefied (a Los Angeles chicano family tries a variety of ploys to save papa’s taco restaurant). Netflix also has Kim’s Convenience, which features a Korean family’s efforts to keep its Toronto store afloat. Hmmm–all of these seem somewhat alike, don’t they?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 233

Sunday, October 3

I haven’t written much lately—mostly because there’s little going on.

The big event recently: On Friday, I got a third anti-COVID vaccination. Such “booster” shots are available in the U.S to the over-65 population. Are we robbing the less-developed world? Probably.

The video-streaming platforms are loaded with spooky content. The upcoming holiday of Halloween is so peculiar. Why do children enjoy ghost and horror stories—and getting a fright? If the victim has a close shave but escapes, I guess it’s a reaffirmation of the Christian idea of everlasting life. It seems that nobody ever really dies.

One Psychology Today article adds: “When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria.” Moreover, once the scare is over, there’s the sense of relief that, yes, we got through that.

And lots of kids like Halloween because of the treats—as I am reminded whenever I go into a supermarket. All of October is an occasion to binge on candy.

Dinner: Italian wedding soup, ham sandwiches, and leftover roasted zucchini with mozzarella.

Entertainment: The Netflix movie Official Secrets, all about a British whistleblower and the Bush-Blair deceptions that propelled the Iraq war.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 232

Thursday, September 16

Lucky is back!

Or at least a relative of Lucky’s is. The much-missed rabbit–last seen in June of 2020–appeared on Tuesday, happily chomping on the weeds that sprout between the bricks on our patio, just like old times.

The post-Labor Day withering away of the East End’s human population has encouraged all sorts of wildlife to re-consider their relationship with our yard. A deer family of a mom and two very little ones visits every day. Another returning visitor is a chipmunk that we’ve dubbed Thelonious in honor of another Monk, the legendary jazz pianist. (Thelonious feasts on the shells of birdseed that the avian visitors have spilled under their feeder.) Then there are the squads of birds who come to our feeder and two bird baths. Some of these particularly enjoy the latter, both as a place to drink and really scrub their feathers.

The early fall months generally bring lots of birds to the area, perhaps as they prepare to migrate. Geese fly over in V-shaped formations, and hoardes of blackbirds circle, squawk, bicker, and peck at the ground. Even the squirrels are somewhat intimidated.

Yesterday I was able to strike off another item from my to-do list: I got a new battery for my Mac laptop, just as the machine had been urging me to do for weeks. This was not so easy. I had to take the computer to a shop in Sag Harbor and leave it there for several days as they replaced both battery and the attached keyboard. After retrieving the computer, Emily and I went to an admired Water Mill farm stand to get cantaloupe, corn, winter squash, lettuce, tomatoes, and apples–all stuff that’s simply more authentic and tasty when it comes from farm stands rather than the supermarket.

I’ve been reading Danish poet Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy. (Nordic noir videos have encouraged an interest in Scandinavia.) Much of the book is an account of her struggle to get published and win recognition as a writer. But she also describes her romantic relationships with a number of guys…and her three pregnancies, two of which ended with abortions. The events described take place in the late 1930s and 1940s, a period that includes the Nazi occupation of her homeland.

Of course, I’m reading Ditlevsen’s description of unwanted pregnancies and abortions during a fraught period in the United States, when state legislators and courts are making it ever more difficult to get an abortion. Abortion was illegal in Denmark during Ditlevsen’s lifetime. Why? The religious establishment? A general sense that life was sacred–and that the sexually active should be punished? A sense that women are evil and unclean and get what they deserve? The more you ponder it, the more mysterious the matter becomes.

The New York Times yesterday published a very insightful opinion piece on the history of the abortion-rights struggle in the U.S. According to Thomas B. Edsall, back in the 1970s and ’80s, the majority of Republicans and conservatives were no more stridently anti-abortion than other Americans. But a handful of conservative activists changed that. After a “long and contentious debate,” the likes of Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Viguerie, and Jerry Falwell abandoned the issue that had first drawn them into political activism–the desire to defend the tax advantages of religious, whites-only schools. Instead, they settled on a concerted effort to politicize abortion in part because “it dodged the race issue and offered the opportunity to unify conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.” Anti-abortion politics, they found, provided a chance to attract a mass base to their otherwise flakey, beyond-the-fringe politics.

Dinner: Blistered broccoli pasta with walnuts, cheese, and herbs plus a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: the often-imitated Swedish/Danish version of policier The Bridge, season three.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 231

A friend’s Westchester County parking garage after the recent flooding.

Tuesday, September 7

It seems Emily and I have been successfully dodging climate-change bullets. But, with another couple of months to go before the official end of hurricane season, how long can our luck hold out?

Anxious about Hurricane Henri, which was projected to hit the East End of Long Island, we fled the area and went back to New York City on August 21. (In the event, the storm stayed largely to the east of the island.) We remained in the city for a week, during which time Emily got her third COVID vaccination shot. Then gauging the likeliest low-traffic travel window, we returned to Long Island on the morning of Sunday, August 29.

Three days later, New York City was hit by what Governor Kathy Hochul called “Niagara Falls-level water” in the streets, the result of Hurricane Ida.

On the East End, that tropical storm was largely a rain event that simply dumped a bunch of leaves in the yard. 

In the city and in New Jersey, severe flooding resulted in massive property destruction, mass evacuations, cancellation of 500 flights from airports, 150,000 homes without power—and 43 deaths. Many of the dead were people who got stuck in basement apartments (many of them illegal) or in their cars when flood waters rose.

“The storm dumped a record 3.15 inches of rain in just one hour in Central Park, topping the previous high of 1.94 inches in an hour set just 11 days earlier during Hurricane Henri,” said the Times.

Some city neighborhoods were submerged in chest-high water. Subway stations were flooded and the system was shut down.

Highways turned into rivers. A tornado in Southern New Jersey leveled a stretch of houses, and both the Elizabeth River and the Passaic River flooded.

Had we tarried, we easily could have been stuck in the city—our car in a flooded basement garage.

As luck would have it, our car simply got a nice wash, thanks to Ida.

One friend, who lives in the Westchester County town of Hartsdale, has sent photos showing her building’s garage flooded and her car totaled. That could easily have happened to us.

Dinner: Szechwan eggplant, white rice, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of Netflix’ lightweight crime drama Only Murders in the Building and more episodes of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–Chapter 230

A Unification Church mass wedding.

Monday, August 30

People today are looking frantically to relinquish responsibility. 

There’s just too much to feel responsible for. There are the unending weather/climate disasters including Hurricanes Henri and Ida—and their link to your gas-guzzler and plastic-bag addiction. The decision about whether you and/or your dependents should get the COVID vaccination. The failed military adventures from Iraq to Afghanistan, which thanks to W.’s administration many Americans supported. The fool’s gold promises of globalization, which said that trade competition and lost industrial jobs would all balance out to everyone’s advantage. And the refugee crises from Italy to the Mexico-U.S. border. Lots of people just can’t take it all and long for somebody else to give them direction.

The novelist Don DeLillo has long understood Americans’ desire to let somebody else for god’s sake make the decisions. Even planning what’s for dinner or what to watch on the boob tube is just too much…not to mention how to find or commit to a mate.

DeLillo’s Mao II begins with a depiction of a 1980s mass marriage ceremony of  Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s followers—an event in which over 4,000 people got hitched to the absolute strangers that Master Moon dictated they should wed. In the vast audience, the father of one bride ponders the bridal parties: “They are a nation, he supposes, founded on the principle of easy belief. A unit fueled by credulousness….They follow the man because he gives them what they need. He answers their yearning, unburdens them of free will and independent thought.”

Surely this is the impulse at work in some people’s substitution of Ivermectin, a de-worming medication intended for livestock, for the science-supported COVID vaccine. FOX News’s personalities Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham have all recommended Ivermectin as a COVID cure—as they seek a similar blind-faith audience response to that commanded by Rev. Moon and, for that matter, to the loyalty so many have given to Trump.

But Carlson et al. should take warning: Today, Moon’s Unification Church has withered. With no more than a few thousand members, it has split into three, with the largest of these led by Moon’s wife, Had Ja Han Moon. (Moon himself died in 2012 after declaring his church closed.) Smoke and mirrors will only take you so far.

Dinner: cold sliced roast beef, corn on the cob, and a green salad with yogurt dressing.

Entertainment: Episodes of the Italian courtroom drama The Trial (Il processo).

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–Chapter 229

“Midnight Diner,” the manga on which Netflix’ series is based.

Sunday, August 22

At first I was blasé about Henri. 

But as the storm got nearer to Long Island, it seemed better to make tracks. So Emily and I left for that haven of tranquility—the welcoming haven for refugees, the mother of exiles and huddled masses—New York City.  

We departed at around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. We passed scenes of panic, with long lines of cars waiting to fill up at gas stations and crowds grabbing provisions at stores and farm stands. The traffic wasn’t too bad; I think maybe we were among the early departures.

And here we are in Gotham. It’s raining hard, but there’s not much wind here.

At midday on Sunday, it’s hard to find out much about the storm damage so far…just lots of Accuweather generalities about storm surges and power outages. On Twitter, one can see video of floodwaters rushing down the streets of Brooklyn on Sunday night. But at this moment, utility provider PSEG-Long Island reports only six electrical outages affecting 23 people in East Hampton. 

There could yet be more outages and falling trees, etc. The eye of the tropical storm now seems to be nearing Rhode Island—but the storm is widespread and for all I know, the worst is yet to come on Long Island’s East End.

We’ll likely stay in the city through much of the coming week. That will give Emily an opportunity to seek a booster COVID shot, now available to the immunocompromised. I’ll go to H Mart and score some Asian food ingredients that are hard to find on Long Island. We won’t go back until it’s clear that the electricity is on.

Dinner: leftover sheet-pan chicken with zucchini and a warm lentil salad.

Entertainment: Episodes of Netflix’ strange and charming Japanese series Midnight Diner.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–Chapter 228

Menacing, no?

Thursday, August 5

A year and a half since we evacuated New York City due to COVID-19, it has become clear that we’re unlikely ever to resume our old relationship with the city. 

We still pay rent on our apartment in lower Manhattan, but I have canceled our monthly parking space. All our mail comes out to Long Island, and it may not be long before I cancel other New York City utilities.

We’re not going back for a planned August visit due to the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID, which The New York Times says “now accounts for more than 80 percent of new infections” in the United States. Inevitably, more variants will emerge soon. Emily’s regular doctor says that given her damaged immune system—compromised by anti-cancer medication—she should stay out in the country, away from public transportation and crowds.

Emily hasn’t actually seen that doctor for over a year but speaks to her often over the phone.  She was expecting to see her dentist and dermatologist this month…but now those visits are likely off, too. In time, we may be compelled to find new doctors out here on Long Island.

Back to the NIMBY dispute over cell-phone towers. 

You may recall that a few days ago I wrote about how the Town of East Hampton had announced plans to erect an 185-foot cell-phone tower on a vacant, wooded lot in the working-class area of Springs—prompting howls of protest from nearby residents.

Most recently, though, an attorney for the Springs Fire District has proposed an alternative—a 100-foot-tall, temporary tower on wheels, placed down the street at the fire department property. Such a temporary tower, he said, would pose no threat to safety and require no clearing of trees, according to The East Hampton Press.

But would such a tower in that location really fulfill the technical needs of both emergency personnel and citizen cell-phone users? And hasn’t a previous lawsuit already shut down a cell-tower at the firehouse location?

And isn’t it likely that fights like this–and spotty cell-phone service–are the norm all across the United States?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but someone will doubtless tell us soon.

Dinner: hot dogs, a leftover chicken and sugar snap pea salad, and boiled baby potatoes with sour cream.

Entertainment: episodes of British policiers Shetland, which features a heroic cop, and Bancroft, which features a sinister, manipulative, and murderous woman officer. She’s like the twin sister of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley–a very effective psychopath.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 227

Friday, July 30

Another NIMBY squabble is underway on the East End—this time over a proposed cell-phone tower.

Last week’s headline-grabbing fracas involved noisy flights in and out of the East Hampton airport, with a group of middle-class residents saying the airport should be shut down. They’ve had it with all the din from the 1%ers’ helicopters and private jets.

Now, an even less affluent group of homeowners are up in arms over a plan to install a 185-foot cell-phone tower right in the middle of their modest Fort Pond Boulevard neighborhood in the working-class area of Springs. 

The East Hampton Town Board says there are few alternatives. And believe it or not, in this day of ubiquitous cell-phone jabber, there are some areas of East Hampton where it’s nearly impossible to get a cell-phone signal.

That’s particularly problematic in the middle of our current health emergency. First responders have trouble communicating with each other, and calls to 911 don’t always go through.

Previous plans would have placed cell towers elsewhere—but those have been frustrated as well. Negotiations were underway to place a tower at Camp Blue Bay, a Girl Scout enclave on Three Mile Harbor. But the Scouts backed out saying they didn’t want such a tall tower on their patch. The town’s communications consultants say a shorter tower wouldn’t provide the needed connection between Springs, Montauk, and Wainscott.

Just what are the Fort Pond residents so concerned about? Is it simply the looks of the proposed tower, which could loom over 60-foot-tall oaks? The impact that such a tower might have on property values? Or maybe it’s 5G paranoia—the idea that there could be unknown health hazards connected with cell-tower radiation.

Fans of the Breaking Bad sequel Better Call Saul will recall the suffering of Chuck McGill, brother of the sleazy lawyer “Slippin’ Jimmy” McGill. Chuck is plagued by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”—a possibly psychosomatic malady that leaves him cowering beneath a space blanket in his house and unable to work or function normally. Although the medical establishment and the World Health Organization pooh-pooh the notion of such a malady, claims about it continue to circulate—probably even in Springs.

The Fort Pond Boulevard folks say they will sue to block the cell tower…just as other residents sued and successfully shut down a different tower located at the  not-very-far-away Springs Fire Department.

Meanwhile, it’s not unusual to see would-be cell-phone users standing out in the middle of local streets, fruitlessly attempting to locate a cell-phone signal.

I think what’s going on is a conflict about the future of the area. The place is rural and woodsy—but newcomers, in flight from the pandemic and in search of pristine beaches, want to bring their urban amenities with them. Like the conflict between local wildlife and the SUV—and between the polar ice caps and climate-change-inclined Big Oil companies—there can be little doubt of the ultimate victor.

Dinner: a frozen Amy’s pizza and a green salad.

Entertainment: the winning if slightly mysterious Japanese feature Asako I & II.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 226

“The Fog Warning” by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, July 23

My cousin Fred writes that he has acquired a rowing machine, which he enjoys. It helps build core body strength without hurting his knees.

I, too, once had a rowing machine—back in the 1980s. I used it for a bit, then after a couple of years it got propped against the wall where it gathered dust. During one move or another, I threw it out.

Fred’s note makes me think of a story from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces:

Galeano describes how his friend, the ex-pat writer Alastair Reed, found an advertisement for a rowing machine amid the voluminous mail that got forwarded to him. Reed was then living in the Dominican Republic, and he showed the ad to his neighbors, all fishermen.

“Indoors? They use it indoors?” said one.

The fishermen couldn’t believe it.

“Without water? They row without water?”

They couldn’t comprehend it.

“And without fish? And without the sun? And without the sky?”

The fishermen told Alastair that they got up every night long before dawn and put out to sea and cast their nets as the sun rose over the horizon, and that this was their life and that this life pleased them, but that rowing was the one infernal aspect of the whole business:

“Rowing is the one thing we hate,” said the fishermen.

Then Alastair explained to them that the rowing machine was for exercise.

“For what?”

“Exercise.”

“Ah. And exercise—what’s that?”

Dinner: grilled hamburgers along with a plethora of leftovers—sesame noodles, a cold lentils and goat cheese salad, and American Picnic potato salad.

Entertainment: The impressionistic and colorful Angolan indy Air Conditioner and one episode of Britbox’ just-posted Ashes to Ashes.