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.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 225

Be my little baby..basil.

Saturday, July 17

A year and some months since the COVID crisis officially began, I am still racked by anxiety whenever I have an appointment scheduled. The concern about coming into contact with other humans in public spaces has merged with worry that I will forget about or miss the appointment…that the person/doctor/functionary that I am supposed to see will cancel the appointment…or that another crisis will intervene. 

They used to talk about free-floating anxiety, but this is not that. It’s largely rooted in pandemic-related issues: It’s frequently hard to even get an appointment. Then what about mask-wearing and social distancing? Should I? Will others?

Then there are the crowds associated with summer on the East End. Hordes of summer people come here, perhaps more this year than in previous seasons, with everyone looking to recapture the good times. Auto traffic can be nightmarish, especially amid the current heat wave, so it’s best to schedule things early…or, then again, maybe in mid-afternoon, when lots of folks will be courting skin cancer down at the beach.

On Thursday, I went to Amagansett and got a haircut and picked up a pound of coffee. I worried a lot about the haircut experience ahead of time. There are no appointments, you just show up, sign onto a waiting list, and loiter outside till they call your name. Would I have to wait for a long time?

Vinnie, the barber, told me that there were several people waiting at the door when he arrived to open at 6:30 a.m. (I got there around 7:45.) Everything went fine. At the coffee place, there were six baristas busily filling orders, and a line of twenty-something folks ordering fancy lattes, etc.

On Friday, Emily and I drove over to the the East Hampton post office and then to the library. We ventured out around 1:30 p.m., and the traffic wasn’t too bad—certainly not nearly so bad as it had been at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. There was a bit of a line at the P.O., but things went O.K.

In the coming week, I have a physical therapy session scheduled for midday on Wednesday in East Hampton. And an appointment for a state-required auto inspection on Friday at 10 a.m. Now, I worry that either or both of these could be canceled.

And—maybe I have said something like this before—if both of these go off without a hitch, I will likely begin worrying that I am forgetting something. What could it be?

I still have to acquire a new battery for my laptop, and we have to go back into the city in mid-August for Emily to see her dermatologist again. It’s all more stuff to worry about.

Dinner: leftover meatballs with pasta and a green salad. Emily’s increasingly severe acid reflux has begun limiting our food options—no more tomatoes, it seems.

Entertainment: old episodes of Inspector Morse and Bergerac on BritBox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 224

The predator lurks.

Sunday, July 11.

Along with the local deer, who stroll nonchalantly through our yard, there is a family of alarmingly large hawks living nearby, sometimes also venturing onto our turf. I encountered the one shown above–some 15 inches tall at least–along with his mate and one offspring during my morning walk. He didn’t seem very concerned. Maybe he thought it would entail too much work to eat me.

He was munching on something as I approached, and I don’t think it was a bagel. Probably some innocent little rodent or fellow bird. Too bad the hawks don’t eat deer.

The primary predator helping to winnow the deer herd is the automobile, as a local newspaper once pointed out. The victim’s carcasses can frequently be seen along the sides of roads. There are human victims, too: In a freak accident some years back, an auto hit a deer and sent it flying through the air, whereupon it struck and killed a bicyclist.

I wonder if the deer was wearing a helmet. Seems like we need not only bike lanes but also deer lanes.

Meanwhile, there’s a move afoot to shut down the East Hampton airport. Middle class folks complain that the constant jet-aircraft and helicopter traffic disturbs their peace–and that the aircraft serve only the 1%. There have been heated, standing-room-only political hearings on the matter, and no doubt the local pols, recipients of the 1%’s largesse, just wish the issue would go away. Lee Zeldin, the mossback GOP congressman who represents the area, had a spokesman present who said the town should not pursue “needlessly harsh measures.”

Hmmm. If there are only a very few people flying into the airport, why then is there a noise problem?

Turn-of-the-20th-century sociologist Thorstein Veblen would likely have an answer. Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, coined numerous witty and on-point observations about the behavior of the 1%. Why did the ancient Chinese Emperors insist that their wives and concubines sport very, very long fingernails? Well, it was a display of what Veblen termed “conspicuous waste.” It showed that the Emperor had sufficient wealth to surround himself with women who were unable to perform any useful labor. Their morbidly long fingernails wouldn’t allow them to peel a lychee nut, much less clean the bathroom or prepare bird’s nest soup. Similarly, the retinues of various kings and pashas included hugely muscled servants who did little more than stand around and scowl. With their biceps, these bruisers could have been moving mountains. Why not? More conspicuous waste, Veblen opined.

So, today, I suspect, the 1% favor aircraft that make as much noise as possible: It’s a manly display of their pecuniary strength and ability to shake the heavens. Did you think Donald Trump alone craved public attention?

Dinner: barbecued pork chops, potato salad, and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Eric Rohmer’s romance caper Rendez-vous in Paris.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 223

Friday, July 9

Years ago, Emily told me that her mother liked to eat radishes with butter. It then seemed to me just another excuse to add fat into the diet. Later, I learned that this is a typically French way of eating the spicy springtime morsels. And further investigation reveals that the combination goes a long ways back.

Among the friends of legendary 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys was the naturalist John Evelyn, author of the 1699 book Acetaria: A discourse on sallets [or salads]. Evelyn had been influenced by the French fashion for eating simpler things, including 82 different veggies including “Sparagus.”

As dressings for salad, Evelyn liked light oil, wine vinegar infused with cloves, mustard, and citrus peel. With radishes, you just rub one in butter, and then dip it in salt—nothing else is needed as it brings its own pepper with it, the naturalist observed.

Neanderthals had no butter, but it seems that the swollen upper part of the radish root has been eaten since prehistoric days, from Western Europe to Asia. The classical Greek historian Herodotus said that the slaves who built the Great Pyramid in Egypt ate so many radishes that they wrote an inscription about the vegetable on the side of the structure.

Radishes come in a range of shapes and sizes—including 18-inch long daikon and mooli—and in various colors. There are white, pink, purple, red, and black. One Chinese radish, Xin Li Mei, sometimes has internal crimson stripes.

You can get radishes, cheap, in every supermarket. But the best ones, and the greatest variety, are found at farm stands. Those pictured here came from the Water Mill organic veggie stand, Green Thumb.

Dinner tonight: sheet pan chicken with zucchini and basil, rice, and a green salad.

Entertainment: More old episodes of the British policier Morse.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 222

Monday, July 5

The pandemic and lockdown are still having an effect on health care demand and supply. In the city, I was unable to get a timely appointment for an ultrasound that my doctor wanted. Back here on Long Island, I am unable to get an appointment for physical therapy.

I imagine two factors at work. First, many people delayed making appointments during the lockdown—and many health-care facilities weren’t taking any appointments. Now, renewed demand is overwhelming medical offices. Moreover, some of the urban population has shifted, moving to country and suburban locations where there are fewer health-care providers. 

The East Hampton physical therapy office that I telephoned was downright rude. Another place, in Sag Harbor, was both flaky and evasive…and ultimately failed to return a promised phone call.

Tomorrow I am scheduled to report to Southampton Hospital at 11:30 a.m. for the ultrasound. I’ll probably keep telephoning the Sag Harbor PT office in pursuit of an appointment there.

Today is the day after Independence Day, and most people with jobs have this as a holiday since the 4th fell on a Sunday. For the jobless, holidays are meaningless or worse since nothing can really be accomplished on such days.

Every day lately has featured rain, sometimes torrential. That put a slight crimp yesterday in the detonation plans of fireworks possessors and would-be outdoors party-goers. Still, there were enough explosions that the deer population was forced into hiding—a good thing for new rosebush possessors such as myself. At sunset yesterday, I spied one doe chomping on our new Cherry Frost rosebush. I yelled bloody murder and Emily quickly applied some spray-on deer repellent. 

The weather is also having an impact on our grilling plans. On Saturday, I dodged the raindrops to grill burgers and some veggies. I was surprised it worked at all.

Tonight’s dinner: black beans and rice plus a green salad.

Entertainment:  Another spy drama—Netflix’ Red Joan with Judi Dench as an unlikely Soviet agent.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 221

Art is cute, but nature is flat out mysterious. Just what are the front-yard visitors in the second photo up to?

Sunday June 27

After a while, we couldn’t take any more of the city. So we came back to Long Island.

New York City is not what it was, of course, and even the transition back to “normality” is quite disconcerting. Some folks will assure you that the lockdown is over–yet mask-wearing is still mandatory on the subway. Most people who I saw were still wearing masks every place in public. But, then, I didn’t go out to any restaurants or night spots; the scenes there may have been quite different.

Back in March, I was fearful while in the city. During this trip, I was fearful…and suspicious. Every doctor/dentist who I saw seemed to want another visit or some second procedure. The dentist informed me that I need a crown on a tooth where there’s a “food trap.” Only a little while back, he offered reasons why there couldn’t be a crown. (Maybe he worried that insurance wouldn’t pay for it.) Fishy, no?

Most troubling of all was my experience at the Apple Store. My Mac Power Book has begun warning me that I must replace its battery soon. So I went over to the West 14th St. Store on Thursday and spoke to one person who said the battery replacement should take about an hour–but that I would need to make an appointment with someone at the “Genius Bar.” At my Friday appointment, after examining my laptop, a Genius Bar rep told me that the computer would have to be sent away for a period of 5 to 7 days, during which time it would get not only a new battery but also a new keyboard.

Really? If you Google “Mac Powerbook battery replacement,” you see information about how to do it yourself with a replacement battery purchased on Amazon.com.

I didn’t surrender the computer to them. Maybe I will do so when we return to NYC in August. Or maybe I will find another alternative. The fall-off in business during the lockdown freaked out a lot of people, who worried about eviction and bill-paying. Now, I’m afraid, some may be looking for ways to get financially healthy again.

Dinner: a Capriccio salad of fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, celery, and balsamic dressing, with asparagus on the side.

Entertainment: A Kind of Murder on Hulu.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 220

Wednesday, June 23

I highly recommend the Alice Neel show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was an expressionist portrait painter (1900-84)—there may be a couple of landscapes in the show—a leftist, and a bohemian mother of at least three children, all by different fathers I believe.

Like most museum shows, there is just not enough detail about Neel’s life. But the Met curator apparently found it difficult to omit all biographical particulars, especially since Neel’s portrait subjects include her children and various Communist and leftist acquaintances. Neel lived in Harlem and “Spanish Harlem,” and apparently at times had digs on the Upper West Side and on the New Jersey shore. Two of her most engaging paintings are of black children from Harlem; others include a gay couple and a nude self-portrait painted when she was around eighty. She didn’t shy away from reality.

Could this exhibit have been hung before the lockdown, without anticipating the social distancing that would be wanted? Although the Met tries to limit the number of guests, paintings are grouped pretty close together and people still crowd around just as they did in pre-pandemic times. Especially worrisome are a number of small paintings crammed into corners which at any given moment tended to draw a crowd of a half-dozen viewers. I skipped a lot of these. Everybody had masks, though, and all were well-behaved.

The Metropolitan remains frightfully expensive: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors although “the amount you pay is up to you” if you are a New York State resident. We got in for free thanks to my McGraw-Hill retiree arts card.

During these days in the city, I am finding that I remain a pandemic paranoid. I flinch when people get too close—even when other pedestrians just follow too closely behind. I am especially wary of tailgating pedestrians who speak in loud voices and who seem anxious to get around me. I have had space to myself for months, even when going out for solitary walks. Today, we’ll go on a jaunt to the Apple Store—and that should put my patience to an extreme test.

Dinner: we are reduced to hot dogs accompanied by beans and cold cucumber soup.

Entertainment: Netfix’ policer Unit 42.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 219

Socially distanced brunching on East 9th St.

Saturday, June 19

You know things are bad when the Salvation Army store is forced to close. Today, there’s not even any indication that S.A.’s Fourth Avenue emporium ever existed.

Even more shockingly, the large Food Emporium supermarket at the corner of 14th St. and Union Square East is shuttered—a victim of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, each of which has a store a stone’s throw away. But those Johnny-Come-Latelys are themselves far from crowded. The Food Emporium—once an A&P—had been at the Union Square location since 1987, when the Zeckendorf Towers building that housed it was completed.

Still, some neighborhood brunch goers seem into the cheery, post-pandemic swing of things, although many restaurants still seem focused on outdoor dining. Plenty of East Villagers are right now sipping their Saturday lattes at the makeshift tables set up along 9th Street and St. Mark’s Place. It was already getting hot by 10:30, but nice-ish weather may have encouraged them.

My idea to visit several doctors over a concentrated period—and cross them off of the to-do list—has run up against cruel reality. The dentist wants to see me two more times, spread out over a period of several weeks. My GP wants me to get an ultrasound—but West Side Radiology has no time slots available for weeks. Since we fully intend to go back to Long Island shortly, these appointments may simply not happen. And I will have to try to arrange physical therapy in Sag Harbor. 

Baseball is totally back. The Mets game is currently in progress at Nationals Park in Washington, which has been allowed to accommodate full-capacity crowds since June 11. 

By my standards, there’s not much at the major museums. Both MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum are open but lacking in exciting exhibits other than that of American painter Alice Neel at the Met. The listings section of The New Yorker seems to acknowledge this by concentrating on small galleries. 

Yesterday, we had a very pleasant visit with our 25-year-old niece Montana, who now lives in the city. Other than conversations with plumbers and carpenters, it was the first visit we’ve had with anyone since the lockdown began. And admittedly, it was a bit strange to be merely having an extended conversation; my mouth had trouble forming words. Strangers in a strange land.

Dinner: Another Chinese dish, Ma Po Tofu, white rice, and avocado.

Entertainment: Episodes of the German mystery Allmen on Mhz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 218

Thursday, June 17

We are back in the city for at least a week, seeing dentists and doctors and haircut artists. 

Yesterday, I went to the dentist at 8:30 a.m., the only time they could take me. It was OK, I’m no longer a late riser—the pandemic disruption has cured me of that. And out in the country, the songbirds get busy at 6 a.m., announcing the rising of the sun and time to get up and about.

 The hygienist wore a blue, disposable mask but told me that there would be no temperature taking or other precautions. The era of COVID restrictions was at an end, she announced. But she also said she expected another wave to hit in the fall.

Today, I’m seeing my GP, whose office is in one of those increasingly common NYC buildings with a mystifying address: 5 Columbus Circle.

There was a time when city addresses gave you a precise idea of location—1790 Broadway was once the building’s descriptive address. Broadway and 58th St. Now, the real estate industry glamorizers have taken over; 5 Columbus Circle sounds more hotsy-totsy, even if it leaves the poor pedestrian frantically Googling to discover the location.

The city. seems quite surreal—like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Life on Mars. It’s all in my mind, but it seems like a place from another time.

Dinner: sheet pan ratatouille with an avocado, lettuce, and grape tomato salad.

Entertainment: final episodes of pan-Euro thriller The Team on Mhz.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 217

Mmmmm…meatballs!

Friday, June 11

I’m thinking about just how the pandemic and lockdown changed our cooking and eating habits. And since this blog is meant to be a personal record of this strange time, I’m recording my thoughts here.

In daily life as we used to know it, we regularly adopted various new foods and recipes. First, we’d try that tuna and cannellini bean salad to see if we liked it—and before long, we might find that it had become a dinnertime staple. Recipe sources would keep referring to something not in the pantry—so you’d go get some gochujang or miso and, since the stuff was suddenly there, you’d keep making a dish that used it whether you totally loved the ingredient or not.

Moreover, in the ordinary course of life, I have made certain dishes over and over. I’d repeat a dish every couple of weeks, or have it in my head as a fall-back recipe for quick and unplanned weeknight fare. 

And of course, we’d occasionally eat out at a restaurant.

The lockdown and difficulty of getting foodstuffs altered this way of living. Suddenly, no matter what the online or TV chefs recommended, it was scarcity that began defining choices. You couldn’t just run out to H Mart or another Asian store to pick up an otherwise exotic ingredient. Jicama? Lemongrass? Nope.

The supermarket Stop and Shop, from which we began getting deliveries in March of 2020, was full of surprises. One week, a completely ordinary comestible like raisins or Gala apples would be out-of-stock, but they would have Kikkoman soy sauce, sugar snap peas, Crosse & Blackwell capers, and Uruguayan organic honey. 

Certain of my onetime go-to dishes are now mostly forgotten: cold sesame noodles; Szechwan eggplant with ground pork; Ma Po tofu; pasta bolognese; and prepared items from Trader Joe’s including chicken pot pies and frozen ravioli.

We have no wok here on Long Island and no easy access to such things as Szechwan hot bean paste. Those changes account for much of a decline in my Asian cooking. Also, of course, there’s no Trader Joe’s store.

Two other factors have figured in our dietary changes: the fact that Emily is now the executive chef in charge of food-ordering; and the shift away from spontaneity to weekly planning of menus.

Old reliable dishes that I still make after decades include lentil soup, chicken paprikash, turkey chili and turkey picadillo, avgolemono soup, beef stew, omelettes and frittatas, and turkey meatloaf.

New dishes that now appear with some regularity: the Latin beef dish ropa vieja; black beans and rice; cornbread tamale pie; penne with asparagus pesto; pasta with roasted red peppers and goat cheese; grilled pork chops and hamburgers; baked chicken breasts with artichokes; spaghetti with drop meatballs; American picnic potato salad; the spicy egg dish shakshuka; and (after a couple of failed attempts to make my own pizza from scratch) Amy’s frozen pizza.

So summing up, it seems there has been a decline in Asian food-making and a surge in Latin and All-American eats. I also think we are consuming less meat and more largely vegetable entrees. 

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

Dinner: spaghetti with meatballs and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Life on Mars, season two.