A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 251

White-out…and not the kind from Staples.

Saturday, January 29

The weather people seem like nuclear-weapons-expert wannabes. Currently, according to AccuWeather, the National Weather Service is speaking of the snowy nor’easter that hit overnight as a “bomb cyclone.” Or, you might prefer “bombogenesis”—a good name for a heavy metal rock band!

THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE! Where is Premier Kissoff when we need him?

But take away the scary verbiage and it means that we’ve gotten around 10 inches of snow so far here on Long Island, more in New Jersey, and—especially since it’s still snowing—ultimately perhaps two feet in Boston.

O.K. Whatever.

At the moment, we have heat and electricity, unlike the unlucky 111,000 in parts of Massachusetts. 

Serial crises and never-ending pandemic precautions have prompted me to jot down a timeline of our experiences since March of 2020. During the past two years, we have known lengthy periods of inactivity punctuated by bursts of frantic appointment-keeping. 

Here’s what I mean.

Starting in March of 2020, we fled the COVID-overwhelmed city for Long Island…and stayed here for the next six months. Subsequent moments of high drama (yawn) involved arranging bi-weekly food deliveries and getting the local Internet-providing monopoly to hook us up with broadband service.

Then, we spent the month of September, 2020 back in the city. I saw three doctors and a dentist; Emily got two rounds of mammograms, saw two doctors, and took her computer for a virus checkup at Best Buy. We each got haircuts. 

Late in September, we returned to Long Island where we spent the next four-and-a-half months…reading long books, streaming videos, doing online word puzzles, cooking, and eating.

Then in February of 2021, we went to the city again. It was at this point we each got our first COVID vaccinations, which we had arranged in a panic via the Walgreens website. (You’d go to NY State, Walgreens, and/or CVS websites early every day, then suddenly…you couldn’t believe it…there’d be an opening! QUICK, BEFORE IT GOES AWAY, make the appointment!) We stayed in Gotham for five weeks, each getting a second vaccination on March 12.

Back to East Hampton, where three more uneventful months elapsed—then back to the city again on June 15 for a frantic round of trips to dentists and doctors.

One medical drama overshadowed all others during this period: a painful, ever-worsening rash on Emily’s midsection. This got so bad that in one area it became an open wound. She tried various ointments and fixes, but nothing worked until her dermatologist gave her samples of a Tylenol-size, salmon-colored pill named Otezla. That was increasingly effective—but to which she appeared to be allergic. With no alternative, she stayed on it for months. And, not to be forgotten: Otezla is jaw-droppingly, mind-bendingly expensive…maybe $68,000 for a year if insurance doesn’t cover it. And for a while it seemed they might not cover it.

In August of 2021, there were compound crises. Late in the month, we ran back to the city to avoid Hurricane Henri, which the weather savants said was certain to hit Eastern Long Island! (It missed.) At the very end of the month (after Emily got her COVID booster shot), we ran back to Long Island to avoid Hurricane Ida, whose flooding made city streets into rivers.

This is beginning to remind me of a shaggy-dog Joseph Conrad story, “Youth,” which I described on this website back in October.  Conrad’s ship, Judea, experiences disaster after punishing disaster on its way from England to Southeast Asia. Conrad recounts how the tumult of the cruel ocean “seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity….”

Anyway, back to us. Three trips to and from the city in November and December put an end to our suffering for 2021. Much of our frenzy at that time was due to my former employer—now known as S&P Global—having canceled our dental insurance. So we had to get lots of treatments finished before the end of the year—multiple crowns, root canals, and gum fix-ups. 

Back in November, we had the one social get-together of recent years, aside from our occasional meet-ups with niece Montana. We took the train up to long-time friend Amy’s Westchester apartment, where Jim Guyette (of Hormel strike fame) met us. We sat around and stuffed our un-masked faces for several hours. Momentarily, the worst of the pandemic seemed over. Would we do that again today, after the arrival of Omicron? Probably not.

Dinner: The spicy egg dish shakshuka, cold sesame noodles, and some salad.

Entertainment: the Netflix spy drama In From the Cold.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 250

The Great Dictator.

Sunday, January 23

The noted Norwegian memoirist Karl Ove Knausgaard must have known it was a provocation to entitle his magnum opus My Struggle. And that act alone must have made it all but inevitable that Knausgaard would at some point have to ruminate a bit about the writer who previously employed that title—Adolf Hitler, author of Mein Kampf. (At one point Knausgaard calls it “literature’s only unmentionable book”—so of course he mentions it.)

Knausgaard writes hugely long works and so I won’t apologize for only now catching up to him. The 1157-page Book Six of My Struggle was published in 2018.

But you would think it would be almost impossible to say anything new about Adolf Hitler, so much has been written about him. Nonetheless, Knausgaard has extracted some information from Mein Kampf and elsewhere that is novel, to me at least.

Did you know that Adolf Hitler was homeless for a time? That he was a battered child, being regularly beaten up by his terrifying pig of a father, Alois Hitler? (Alois was illegitimate and went by his mother’s name Schicklgruber for a time, finally adopting his stepfather’s name of Hiedler, which the authorities misspelled as Hitler.)

Did you know that Adolf had only one real friend, August Kubizek, with whom he roomed for a time in Vienna?

And that Adolf was paralyzingly shy around members of the opposite sex? For years, he carried a torch for one girl, writing poems to her and even drawing up plans for a house in which he imagined they would live. Yet Hitler never even approached her or members of her family…he could never bring himself to speak to her.

Knausgaard offers startling but provocative comparisons. In his late teens, Kubizek tells us in his book The Young Hitler I Knew, Hitler was not fixated on politics but was instead so enthralled by high culture—painting, architecture, Viennese opera, and the symphony—that he could talk of little else. In this, he resembled his Vienna contemporary Stephan Zweig and that future successful novelist’s gang of buddies.

Moreover, if Hitler was a failure at his chosen profession of painting, he was hardly alone. Vincent Van Gogh, Knausgaard reminds us, failed to sell even one painting during his lifetime and must have experienced his time on earth as a deeply painful rejection.

So in many ways, one must conclude, Hitler was nothing special–not even a special failure.

During the year 1909, the nineteen year old Hitler was evicted by his landlady, had no possessions, went hungry, and slept on park benches. But, like Van Gogh, he was too “headstrong” to give up his vision of becoming an artist.

Three-time rejection by the art school of his choice and the period of destitution surely played a role in the making of the Führer. Knausgaard compares some of the writing about poverty in Mein Kampf to the reflections of Karl Marx and Jack London. Like Marx, Hitler faulted capitalism. But where Marx focused on the problem of class exploitation, Hitler located the key problem in the ethnic conflicts that resulted from the growing number of immigrants converging on Vienna. “In the Greater Germanic Reich of which he dreamed, there would be no division between burgher and aristocrat, but between German and non-German,” Knausgaard writes.

And before long, there was World War I, and for Hitler, four years in the trenches. Out of that experience, Hitler constructed a mythology of heroism and war.

Dinner: The Italian rice dish risi e bisi, broccoli, and avocado salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the British mystery series Vera.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 249

It was in the bleak January–and not a spark of life.

Friday, January 15

This week’s crisis: No propane, which we need to run our furnace, water heater, and kitchen stove. It seemed we might spend at least one very cold night without heat.

We have two large propane tanks out at the side of our house. I rarely look at the gauge, since the fuel company has always been very dutiful about refilling them. But when I looked on Tuesday, the gauge seemed to read 10%. 

I telephoned the propane supplier in the afternoon, and they said that they had tried to reach us on December 19 (huh?) but failed. It seems the tanks have to be replaced every ten years or so, and that ours needed to be replaced. We couldn’t get a refill until that happened. They agreed to bring new tanks on Wednesday.

A bit later, hoping for the best, I began to prepare pasta for dinner…when the stove sputtered and the flames died.

So I called the supplier’s emergency number, where the representative insisted that I should go out to the tanks and read the gauge again. It seemed they couldn’t make an emergency delivery that evening unless the gauge read 5% or below. Otherwise, they’d have to levy a $150 charge for a delivery.

By this point it was after 6 p.m. and very dark. They seemed pretty unconcerned. Ah, capitalism…rugged individualism…every-man/being-for-xself-ism! There is no such thing as society, as Margaret Thatcher instructed us!

In any case, by around 8:30 an emergency delivery guy came. He was very cheerful and, employing a portable tank, he gave us a 20% tank refill. That much, he said, should last for a couple of days. The old tanks, he said, had been completely empty. (So, I guess, no extra charge for the delivery.)

Then, at 9 a.m. the next day (Thursday), the same easygoing dude reappeared with two new large propane tanks. Working all by himself, he unloaded them from his truck and, employing only a hand truck, moved them into position. These, he said, were 40% full. Another guy would come sometime in the next couple of days to give us even more gas, he said. And indeed, before the day was out, another delivery guy did come and fill the tanks.

So, crisis over—at least for now. 

In each case, the cheerful guy inspected the stove, water heater, and furnace to make sure they were up and running.

But we experienced an anxiety-filled evening, all for nought. Why did no one tell us about the December 19 visit—when, as best I can tell, we were here—or of the necessity of replacing the propane tanks? Well, who knows? The company apparently intended for the old tanks to run down to nearly empty, so they’d be lighter weight and easier to lift and replace—but no one told us that either.

The lingering question: Just what else is about to hit us?

Along with many others, we have experienced plague, bitter cold, tornado-like winds, obstacles to getting food and fuel, medical crises, and more.

So far, looking over Job’s list of complaints, we have missed out on death and utter destruction. No plague of frogs or locusts. No forest fires here. Emily has had a rash…but no boils or leprosy. I have had arthritis afflicting various parts of my body…but I’m not yet a Granpappy Amos-like cripple.

And so far no nuclear winter, Love Canal- or Chernobyl-like eco-disasters.

Still—what next? Nights are still long and dark.

Dinner: turkey chili and a green salad.

Entertainment: The European animated flick The House, and possibly November Man with Pierce Brosnan.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 248

General Motors sit-down strikers in 1937.

Sunday, January 9

The madness of crowds—and the wisdom of crowds.

Each of these phrases has been in the title of a book…each focusing, largely, on investing/speculation/investment bubbles. But the phrases could also refer to the mystifying actions of people—including the January 6 rioters—when they gather as a crowd.

Indeed, historians such as George Rudé have build reputations on the study of crowd behavior. Psychologists must have done the same sort of work, although I know nothing of their research.

But so much of the journalism focused on January 6 reflects the writer(s)’ preconception of right and wrong. A very long Times article today looks at the experiences and psychological damage sustained by Capitol police. Inevitably, that article carries the suggestion that the rioters were villainous or at least demented. 

As far as I know, there has been very little in the way of clinical studies of the January 6 rioters. Some have now been prosecuted for crimes—and a few of these have recanted, saying they were deceived or some such. One Florida man, sentenced to five years in prison for his violent behavior, told the judge in his case that he was “really, really ashamed” of his behavior that day and that he would never attend a political rally again.

So just who misled him? Trump? Fox News? Other irresponsible media? Or the crowd itself?

A “mob” or crowd, we can understand, takes on a personality of its own, separate from the personalities of the individuals. Police of various nations have long employed agents provocateurs with the intent of getting a crowd to misbehave so that its members can be beaten up or prosecuted.

Does that work? Sometimes it must. But exactly what makes a crowd turn into a mob remains unclear. And at one moment, such a group might have a goal that could prove historically progressive, such as the sit-down strikes of 1930s and 1940s America that resulted in great gains for labor unions and ultimately gains in wages and benefits for the U.S. population as a whole. At another moment, as we know from innumerable movies and photos, a group can blame its unhappiness on the perceived actions of scapegoats—black people in the post-Civil War south or Jews in 1930s and ‘40s Germany and Austria.

One noteworthy anecdote comes to mind, drawn from French social philosopher André Gorz’ 1967 work A Strategy for Labor. Gorz described how managers at a European Vauxhall auto manufacturing plant conducted a survey in order to find out just what the facility’s workers thought of their work experience. The written survey, conducted one by one, revealed that the employees were hugely content. Later, though, the results of the survey were published—and workers gathered to discuss them. The group was outraged—how dare you say we are happy?!!—and immediately went out on strike. 

Here, group psychology seems to move in a progressive direction. The group discusses things and takes action to right what the mass perceives to be a wrong. But for good or ill, once again, it seems people have different attitudes when they are individually isolated and when they gather as a group.

So, more study of the January 6 rioters—at least of those not members of organized fascist groups such as the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers—seems in order.

Dinner: Ropa vieja, black beans, rice, and green salad.

Entertainment: More Vera on Britbox and Reservation Dogs on Hulu.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 247

Friday, January 7

It’s a mystery to me how it works.

He wears Hermes ties and handmade suits. He travels around by private jet, flying to the fancy resorts he “owns” (along with the banks) in exclusive areas of Florida, New Jersey, and Scotland. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, he gained notoriety on a nationally broadcast television show where he played a boss who delights in screaming at people “YOU’RE FIRED.”

I mean, could you conceivably root for someone whose reputation rests on giving everyday folks a very public heave-ho? Do you hate your fellow workers that much?

And yet it seems this is the guy who a great many white working men feel best represents their interests. They celebrate their loyalty, flaunting Trump stickers on their Dodge Ram pickup trucks.

The anniversary of the January 6 Washington, D.C. riots has brought the weirdness of the whole Trump phenomenon back into relief. Here you had 10,000 protesters, many of whom had traveled long distances across the country, ferociously intent on reinstating to the Presidency a guy you’d never see down at the barbershop or local bar, much less browsing the secondhand trousers at the Goodwill outlet. Five people died during the riot and 140 police officers were wounded. Subsequent to the events, 700 rioters have been brought up on charges including assault and use of deadly weapons.

And while the action was going on, Trump was watching it all on TV from his private dining room.

One of the rioters on January 6 carried a banner inscribed with a pitchfork. As if they were there in support of “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, a firebrand Populist Party leader of the 1890s. Trump isn’t even Huey Long, author of what historian T. Harry Williams has termed the Long tradition in Louisiana politics—“the idea that the state had an obligation to use its power to raise the lot of the masses.” 

Huey Long said, “Every man a king.” Donald Trump said, “I’m the greatest.”

No, nowadays apparently all some voters care about is having someone who’ll throw tantrums, insult opponents and minority groups (especially women), and escort around a bevy of trophy wives and Barbie-doll daughters.

Please: Explain it to me.

Back to January, 2022.

This time, Mother Nature didn’t miss. Three days back, a storm dumped a foot of snow on D.C. and parts of Virginia and left hundreds of drivers stranded overnight on I-95. Long Island got away with a dusting.

Last night, we got hit…but it’s still no calamity. I’d say we got maybe seven inches, all very pretty. We have plenty of food and the heat’s working, so no need to fear.

Dinner: mushroom barley soup, corn muffins, green salad, and tapioca pudding.

Entertainment: we’re still binging on old episodes of the Britbox policier Vera. Last night, we also viewed the very wacky Bob Odenkirk (famed as Better Call Saul) vehicle, Girlfriend’s Day on Netflix. Hey, how many other shows feature unemployed greeting-card writers?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 246

The deserted beach in winter.

Tuesday, January 4

Questions for a below-freezing day:

Why does the cold make your nose run?

They say that household dust is, in some measure, made up of old human skin cells. Why then does the forced-air heating, which brings in air from the outdoors, lead to more dust on the floor?

And how can that person actually be out there today (temperature: 27 degrees) operating his leaf blower?

COVID just won’t go away, so we’re in for more weeks of isolation. Now, the disease has evolved into the Omicron variant—fast-spreading but it seems not as devastating as Delta. Still, no one can yet say just what the long-term effects of contracting even a milder version of the virus will be. Emily’s brother Vic tells us that his young daughter Maya, currently working out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has gotten it.

Strange to me, the Britbox streaming service has been featuring a number of filmed ghost stories during the Christmas season. Maybe the telling of ghost stories is a Yuletide tradition in Britain, realized most famously in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In one of these videos, “The Stalls of Barchester” based on a story by M.R. James, an archdeacon is left alone in his large, spooky house when his sister/companion goes away to visit relatives. It happens to be the dead of winter, the most oppressive aspect of which, the cleric reflects, is not the cold but the dark. He hears squeaks on the stairs, howls from cats, and ghostly voices…But it’s the darkness that unnerves him most.

And that’s the thing I feel most out here in the country at mid-winter. No street lights and a limited number of neighbors means that it gets very dark indeed at night. I look forward to the dawn, which these days arrives after 7 a.m. I remember the first season of our COVID-related isolation came during the month of March (2020), when days were already getting longer bit by bit. What a relief that will be—but we’re months away.

Food remains a preoccupation. Cold weather encourages consumption of such heavy stuff as beef stew, ropa vieja, chicken potpie…and pudding-like desserts including pear clafoutis and tapioca. The last of these sinfully requires a measure of whole milk or even cream—yum.

Dinner: pasta with meatballs and tomato sauce and green salad.

Entertainment: Early episodes of the thriller Vera on Britbox.