A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 183

 Mystic, vegetarian, and dream diarist Emanuel Swedenborg.

Wednesday, December 30

On Twitter, I found out that a group of British psychoanalysis researchers have been attempting to track and analyze humans’ apparently rising number of dreams during the lockdown. You can discover some of their activity at @LockdownDreams or at their website.

The researchers solicit play-by-play accounts of dreams, and lots of people from across the globe have apparently responded. But the shrinks don’t give the rest of us much access to these accounts. On a recent Zoom chat, they kept remarking how interesting the whole phenomenon is, and they read a bit from Sigmund Freud’s speculations about dreams. Hey, I don’t want the contributors’ names and addresses, just a little bit of what they are dreaming. (There’s more to be found on Twitter at the hashtag #LockdownDreams but it’s hard to know how seriously to take the comments there.)

Picking up on this theme, The Guardian says all this dreaming may relate to our experience of “financial hardship, social isolation, loss of our normal roles, and, for some, loss of loved ones. These stresses are real and present, others are feared or existential. Uncertainty and unpredictability dominate our experience.”

I gather that people dream a lot about airports or other forms of travel. Maybe they are seeking some means of escape—or maybe, as I suspect, they simply experience some form of motion while sleeping and that, in turn, prompts a memory of travel.

I have been having an increased number of dreams for several years, possibly as a result of a prescription drug. What I am noticing now, though, is a greater level of dread that seems present irrespective of the content of a dream. I think it is tied to the pandemic, fear of death, and the very dark winter nights—darker by far than winter nights in the street-lit city.

There’s a very amusing rumination on dreaming available on the BBC. Essayist Ian Sansom describes his own frequent-dreaming experience and that of author Graham Greene, who published a dream diary, which he’d kept for decades, called A World of My Own.

Sansom admits to keeping some notes about his dreams but not a formal dream diary: He says it’s the creepy types—Kafka, William Burroughs, and Emanuel Swedenborg—who have kept dream diaries. Then Sansom describes how he has been dreaming a lot lately—prompting his mother to ask “are you secretly eating a lot of cheese?” She’s always been suspicious of cheese, he admits. He describes a backyard barbecue dream, with a horse present, and a vivid supermarket dream, in which he makes love to a beautiful sometimes-French, sometimes-Italian woman in the bread aisle. 

In contrast to such quotidian stuff, Graham Greene’s dreams are like “little movie pitches,” featuring the likes of Nikita Khrushchev, Francois Mitterrand, authors Robert Graves and T.S. Eliot, and several popes. 

Sansom concludes that perhaps the reason we’re dreaming so much is that with the state and lockdown authorities being so intrusive, dreams are the only place left for us to hide—”unexplored territories of the self.” 

Dinner: Tonight we’ll again have the Middle Eastern egg dish shakshuka with feta cheese and a salad. On New Year’s, we’ll have pork chops sautéed with apples and the Southern must-haves hoppin’ john (black-eyed peas and rice) plus garlicky Swiss chard as a stand-in for collard greens.

Entertainment: Episodes of the 1982 BBC adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 182

Red sky at night: spectacular effects after a recent driving rainstorm.

December 28

There’s not much happening in this period between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Tomorrow, I must take our car to the Riverhead dealer for an oil change–even though it has traveled less than 2,000 miles since the last oil change back in July. Today, the high point has been the purchase of a dozen eggs.

I’m reading David Oshinsky’s book Polio: An American Story, all about the history of that disease, FDR’s experience, the March of Dimes, and the progress toward the Salk and Sabin vaccines in the 1950s. I’m only about halfway through the book. One interesting revelation: There were two vaccines on offer as far back as the 1930s. Both were ineffective, sloppily tested and produced–and one of them even seemed to infect the inoculated with polio. After nine deaths, researchers understood that they must go slow. There was much more they must learn before any vaccine could responsibly be introduced.

So much for warp speed.

Dinner: Braised chicken with lemon and olives, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts.

Entertainment: the Russian movie Beanpole, available on Kanopy.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–Chapter 181

Monday, December 21

Could there be a moment more suited to the work of a particular writer than our current period is to the jottings of Don DeLillo, the poet of unanticipated catastrophe and its handmaiden, paranoia? Way before MAGA and its antifascist dissectors, DeLillo invented a university Department of Hitler Studies for his 1985 novel White Noise. Was it Bhopal or Chernobyl—or maybe intimations of COVID-19—that, in the same work, led the author to give a primary role to an “airborne toxic event”?

And as luck—or possibly the clairvoyance of the Scribner marketing department—would have it, DeLillo has a new novel just hitting the shelves of the few unshuttered bookstores. I don’t have access to the just-published The Silence, but according to The New York Times Book Review, its themes include a technology-dependent humanity abruptly deprived of its fix… and the possibility that the end of days has arrived. It just may be the “eschaton”—a new word to me, thanks be to the Times reviewer.

As my luck would have it, I have just begun reading an old DeLillo work, also suited to our current moment, Great Jones Street. This 1973 effort focuses on a burnt-out rock star, Bucky Wunderlick, who has abruptly deserted his band’s tour and entered a period of self-isolation in an unheated and deteriorating lower Manhattan building. Looking out the window, he sees little other than a crust of brown snow on the window sill, ubiquitous derelicts, and and old woman “bundled in pounds of rags, an image in the penciled light of long retreat from Moscow.” It is, he says, a “time of prayerful fatigue,” of unbroken solitude.

After a few days, his girlfriend Opel arrives. They live mostly in the room’s bed, and “each day passed, detached from time,” as she waits for her drug-trafficking “operative” to arrive. Then Opel mysteriously dies, and Bucky becomes ever more withdrawn from the outside world.

In time, the lost “mountain tapes” are passed along to him. In the vein of Bob Dylan’s “basement tapes,” these are unpolished, “genuinely infantile” recordings of Bucky accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The songs are “strange little autistic ramblings.” But the fabled tapes offer him a way back, a chance to remake himself, he figures.

There are other themes in Great Jones Street, some of which seem more of its period than of our own. There’s an ironically named commune, Happy Valley Farm, which has stolen from a “top-secret U.S. Guv. installation” a “mind-crushing” drug that everyone now wants. (Does anyone still do drugs so recklessly?) There’s a Timothy Leary/Doctor Robert-like “scientific genius of the underground” who’s called Dr. Pepper. And while our age knows all too well the relentless pursuit of celebrity, Bucky’s is marked by rock stars who, Dylan-like, seek isolation—which only increases the desire of the press and the public to see and hear from them. “The less you say, the more you are,” remarks a television interviewer who traps Bucky in the hallway of his building. 

Great Jones Street putters along until it finally sputters out. It’s more of a mood piece than a real novel, but the mood is appropriate to our wintry period of desolation and hoped-for rebirth. Bucky never returns to the limelight and lives on only in the form of rumors. There may be worse fates.

Dinner: Penne with roasted red peppers and goat cheese and a lettuce, pear, and snap peas salad.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 180

Friday, December 18

The Twitterverse is alive with chatter about how Trump and his buds will attempt to pull off some kind of mid-January coup. 

On January 6, according to the scenario, Trump will push the Senate/House to accept his alternate slate of electors. Then if that fails, there’s plan B: the imposition of martial law followed by a re-vote in the disputed states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. The primary backer of this fantasy is the loony, felonious, and recently pardoned General Michael Flynn—even more sure than Trump is that he is a victim.

A key part of this dark plot: the monkeyed-with Dominion voting machines, which were allegedly doing the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party.

It’s all kind of fun…in the same way that it was fun to imagine that Dwight D. Eisenhower was an agent of the international communist conspiracy. 

The winter storm that blew across the East on Wednesday dumped four feet of snow in upstate New York and killed several people. But out here on the East End, we got only a couple of inches, followed by rain that melted much of that. This morning I spread rock salt on our walkway, then shoveled away most of the ice that remained. 

The storm threat prompted Stop & Shop to cancel our scheduled Friday food delivery, but we were able to reschedule for Saturday. Emily was worried that the delivery guys could slip and fall on our ice—hence, my anti-ice efforts.

At the moment, the late-afternoon sun is out, casting golden hour rays across the woods and onto our side yard. Would that this might be the worst of winter that we’ll receive. Fat chance.

Dinner: an all-veggie affair with baked potatoes and sour cream, baby brussels sprouts, and a pear and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: The final episode of Britbox’ lame adaptation of the Anne Bronte novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 178

William Jennings Bryan, farmer advocate, anti-imperialist, and three-time Democratic nominee for president.

Wednesday, December 9

Historians will have a hard time explaining the Era of Trump. After all, he’s hardly William Jennings Bryan, able to hold a crowd spellbound with soaring rhetoric that addresses the crowd’s grievances. Hell, he’s a far cry from even being Huey Long.

So how did Trump, a New York City playboy and real estate swindler, win the fervent backing of so many rural and Midwestern working-class voters?  At this point, it only matters because there are sure to be many would-be Trumps vying to pull off the same act in the future.

Just ask MAGA crowd members why they like Trump, and you’ll hear something to the effect of: He tells it like it is. 

But in the face of so many Trump lies (20,000, according to a Washington Post tally), misrepresentations, and bits of disinformation, who could actually believe that? Only people who choose to avert their eyes from reality. Only people for whom things other than absolute accuracy are what really matters. Maybe people subjected to decades of talk-radio conspiracy-mongering.

[Ted Cruz’s father really was involved in the Kennedy assassination, you know.]

It seems like the phenomenon calls more than ever for psycho-historians.

For my part, I think Trump’s popularity boils down to three or four matters: his unvarying pissed-off attitude, his considerable notoriety thanks to his TV shows, and the clear disapproval of educated, somewhat privileged people. 

He is the victim-in-chief, addressing the legions of those who feel they’ve been swindled in the big three-card-monte game of life.

“We’re all victims,” he recently told the crowd at a Georgia rally. Everybody there should wallow in their victimization—with special emphasis on Trump’s loss of the RIGGED election.

Then he adds a side order of racism and sexism—something the white masses know they shouldn’t approve of but they secretly do. 

That friend who used to laugh at something racist that the likes of Andrew Dice Clay might say, or maybe a grotesquely vulgar comment about women— such a person might think: well, I could never say such things out loud…but you know, it’s true!

Get a half-dozen such people together and you’re on your way toward a MAGA rally.

To be honest, one strand of American comedy has contributed as well. Think about how, over the decades, comedians from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Chris Rock have pushed the boundaries about what may be said in public and laughed at. As a result, the very definition of what is vulgar or taboo has shifted. The American public, which once blushed at the mere mention of brassieres, divorce, or toilet paper, has been desensitized.

So when Trump mocks a disabled news reporter or says something profane about women…well it’s crude but, hey, he’s got a point….

Dinner: grilled eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan, and a fresh mozzarella and tomatoes salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Entertainment: Another episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 177

The workers’ pal.

Monday, December 7

The global pandemic seems to have triggered an openness to workplace change among employers. 

The New Zealand company that imports and distributes Lipton Tea and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream  has just announced that it is moving to a four-day work week, with no change in pay, for its regular employees.

Meanwhile, of course, a large number of companies are allowing, even encouraging, employees to work from home (thereby saving money on office rent). And in a move that not everyone regards as positive, Uber and its allies recently won a California state referendum that encourages the spread of “gig employment,” under which workers have the freedom to come and go as free-lancers—but also employers have few responsibilities toward said workers.

Unilever New Zealand’s move toward a four-day workweek has prompted many to ask: Why didn’t this happen sooner? After all, Vice-President Richard Nixon predicted a move to such a shorter workweek back in 1956. 

Inertia and bosses’ natural resistance to any kind of pro-worker reform are always at work, of course. Even though Henry Ford’s auto-plant workers had enjoyed an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek since 1926, it took years for the U.S. to adopt such standards more broadly—the twelve-hour day was standard in much of heavy industry into the 1930s. The Fair Labor Standards Act, signed into law in 1938, set a ceiling on hours at 44 per week, then 40 per week two years later.

And different industries have different limitations. In the steel industry, which in America entered into its prime around the turn of the 20th century, plants ran flat-out, 24 hours a day. Twelve-hour work days meant hiring only two shifts per day; a switch to eight-hour days would mean three shifts, increasing labor costs by 50%. In contrast, lots of “knowledge work” can be and is done anytime, anywhere. The idea for rum raisin ice cream could have arisen while some employee was having his evening dessert pudding.

Moreover, Unilever has a lengthy history with what has been termed welfare capitalism. The New Zealand unit is a descendant of the British company, Lever Brothers, which was one of several companies to create model company towns in the 19th century. Port Sunlight, as the Lever town in Merseyside was called, housed a company soap works and a model village for workers, featuring pretty cottages, an art gallery, a hospital, schools, a concert hall, a swimming pool, and churches. William Lever, who became the Viscount Leverhulme, said his goal was to “socialize and Christianise business relations.” The better environment, he thought, would mean happier and more productive workers. Port Sunlight was an inspiration for other model company towns, including Hershey, Pennsylvania and Pullman, Illinois.

Also among those calling for a four-day workweek is former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Companies that adopt such hours will, he says, draw the best talent, just as Henry Ford did in the 1920s. 

Dinner: Avgolemono soup and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: the final episode from season two of the Swedish version of Wallander on Kanopy, plus an episode of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 176

Saturday, December 5

Do you shy away from film documentaries? Does the current and possibly most dangerous COVID-19 surge have you wanting escapism?

Well, I know what you mean, and if there were more episodes of The Crown left for me to see, I’d undoubtedly join the queue for them. 

Still there are several new documentaries that have hit my list, including two on legendary musicians, Zappa and Billie.

And there’s one slightly older release that’s well-worth viewing: the Ric Burns bio-doc of neurologist/writer Oliver Sacks, author of such popular books as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

If you’ve read some of Sacks’s work you may feel that you already know him pretty well. The Burns documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, could change your mind about that and maybe make you wonder if everyone’s life choices are little more than a series of accidents.

Sacks grew up in the Golders Green area of London, one of four sons born to a husband-wife pairing of doctors. So it seems as though his decision to become a doctor was foreordained. On top of that, one of his brothers was schizophrenic. The mystery of that malady probably inclined Oliver toward neurology.

But when his mother asked him why he had no girlfriends—and he revealed that he preferred males to females, the resulting parental explosion became another turning point in his life. Having graduated from med school at Queens College, Oxford and performed an internship in London, he moved to the United States for further internship in San Francisco and further study at UCLA.

In California, Sacks demonstrated his penchant for becoming, in the words of one of the film’s commentators, “a world-class fuck-up.” He continued his medical practice but devoted much more of his energy to weight-lifting, motorcycle riding, and to in his own words “staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation”—mostly with amphetamines. 

After moving to New York and beginning to change his ways, he turned to writing. His first book, Migrane, was not a success—and, given its departure from the conventional academic style, it drew disapproval from his colleagues. Then during one hiking vacation in Norway, he fell from a cliff and severely injured his left leg. He decided to write about that experience and his recovery in a work called A Leg to Stand On. However, that writing effort became a huge stumbling block, taking him years to complete. 

Meanwhile, he continued to work as a neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital’s chronic-care facility in the Bronx. The case notes that he kept of patients there became the source of another book—and provided the key to his engrossing and highly successful writing formula. 

He began working with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica. These were people who were catatonic and who had been institutionalized for decades. His treatment of them with the drug L-DOPA seemed to offer relief: Some of them became able to move on their own, to communicate verbally, and enjoy music. The case notes from this experience served as the basis of a 1973 book Awakenings. And that book, in turn, provided a template for other books to come.

There’s much more on Sacks in the documentary, but for me this much was plenty. Sacks, perhaps like most of us, lived through a period of aimlessness and, to give it a positive spin, of experimentation. Then he found his gift. Some said this use of case notes to write books was exploiting his patients: Memorably, one reviewer said that Sacks was “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” But to me, the books are profound and humanizing demonstrations of the strangeness and surprising nature of the human mind. Rather than exhibiting his patients in “a highbrow freak show,” as another critic called it, the works invite us to consider each person’s individuality and the possibility of overcoming the most debilitating woes. Nor does the author shrink from the notion that some phenomena—autism, for instance—can be both fascinating and just flat-out mysterious.

Dinner: cornbread tamale pie and a green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes from season two of the Swedish version of Wallander on Kanopy, plus As Time Goes By season 5.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 175

Monday, November 30

I hate shopping.

I always have. I particularly hated going shopping for clothes with my mother. 

I’ll just wait in the car.

The universe of online shopping and delivery has opened a new world of angst for me. There’s always some bit of fine print waiting to snare you. And there’s a bit of a game involved, especially on eBay. Maybe something has a low price—supplemented, you’ll discover, by a large shipping price, and you sense that the seller is simply making money on the shipping. Then there are the auctions and bidding—things that Emily is good at, but which for me seem calculated to trigger buyer’s remorse. 

I’m risk-averse and prefer to see what I am buying. Will those apples be bruised? Will those size 36 jeans fit like the last size 36? (No, you fool.) No two clothing makers seem to use the same tape measures. Will that electric toothbrush really survive the shipment and work all right? (No.)

Many in today’s shopping public seem to think little of acquiring something, then quickly returning it. But for me, that just adds another layer of hassle. You gotta repack the dingus, make out a shipping label, then go to the post office or someplace to send it. Better to have never bought anything at all.

Recently while washing my french press coffee maker, I tipped it over in the sink and smashed it. Damn: I’d only had it for 40 years!

So I looked for a new one on eBay, and after lots of deep reading of fine print, comparisons of apples and oranges, I bought one—a Bodum. It was advertised as holding four cups. 

Then it arrived. It was tiny, holding only two cups, I found out. Well, I thought, it’s sort of cute so maybe I’ll keep it. But what if an occasion arises when I need to make coffee for company? (We should only be so lucky as to ever have social gatherings again.)

How dare they misrepresent the device’s size? Closer inspection of all Bodum devices shows that—by American standards—they are all misrepresented. “Eight cup” machines actually make only four cups. Bodum is a Danish company with headquarters in Switzerland (!). So perhaps “cup” to them always means a demitasse. 

In French movies, I’ve seen tough guys like Belmondo or Lino Ventura go into a bar and get a coffee—and, true enough, it always seems to be a tiny little thing. 

Here in the Land of the Free, we want a Mug of Java. A Jolt of Joe. Not a thimble, SVP.

So, I complained to the eBay vendor, and they were perfectly nice about taking the product back. They even emailed me a pre-paid label for the return.

Problem No. 2. We don’t have a computer printer here, so I had to find a place to print out the label.

This is turning into a shaggy pup of a story. All I mean to say is: I hate shopping. 

Dinner: A pearl barley and mushrooms casserole, Brussels sprouts, and a green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Swedish version of Wallander on Kanopy, plus As Time Goes By season 5.