A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 270

Sunny times.

Wednesday, July 20

The days are hot…and empty.

Here, there’s nothing like the heat in Britain or parts of France, where temps are soaring above 100F. But it is supposed to be 90 degrees on Long Island this afternoon and in the 80s for the rest of the week.

Meanwhile, as befits such weather, there’s little to do other than get a haircut and go to a farm stand. Alarmingly, no tomatoes at the stand in Amagansett!

We’ve been watching a fascinating series of films by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who died in 1996 but not before making some of the most heralded films ever. His 1994 Three Colors: Red (which features a late-career performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant) is at times puzzling but never less than engrossing. And viewers of Camera Buff (1979), one of Kieslowski’s earliest non-documentary offerings, will find themselves duplicating the main character’s predicament—they will be unable to turn away.

The shattering No End (1985) captures the depressed public mood of General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s martial-law era, during which the astounding, path-breaking Solidarność labor union seemed to have been tamed and become part of the establishment. At the film’s end, we watch as one of the primary characters gives in to despair and commits suicide.

I also hope to watch A Short Film About Killing (1988), which considers many forms of societal violence, and the much admired The Double Life of Veronique (1991), in which two characters (both played by the same actress, Irene Jacob) “share an emotional bond,” in the words of Criterion Channel.

What would we watch without Criterion? Most of the offerings on BritBox are either silly or dramatically flawed. Netflix, too, is largely junk; that said, we are occasionally tuning in to the suspenseful (but probably formulaic) Behind Her Eyes, in which several characters seem to have dark secrets but everyone lives in upper-middle-class splendor. We also subscribe to Mubi (very, very fringe independent features) and Topic (Euro TV, often very gory). But not to HBO—enough is, after all, enough.

Dinner: A small steak salad and pasta with basil pesto.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 269

Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Monday, July 4

In a 1990s political science study that I have now mislaid, researchers found that the U.S. population was inordinately religious—that the American people subscribed to religion at a level far exceeding that of other developed countries and similar to that of people in such places as Mexico and India.

Religion by and large opposes Enlightenment rationality, indulging instead in magical thinking. This is the case across sectarian divides: There’s the virgin birth, Jesus walking on water, God speaking to Moses via a burning bush, Gautama Buddha experiencing “the bliss of deliverance” via asceticism and meditation, and Mohammad’s receipt of the word of God from the archangel Gabriel.

Such a non-rational mindset likely afflicts a majority of U.S. citizens, even though polls show that organized religion is on the wane, particularly among young people. According to the Pew Research Center, 26% of the public identifies as “nothing in particular”—a figure that jumps to 36% of people between the ages of 24 and 30. (Sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have prompted a steady desertion: 13% of Americans today self-identify as “former Catholics.”)  Instead of church, people are likely finding religious inspiration and guidance via the Internet. As Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, told The Atlantic: It is easy for anxious people “to build their own spiritualities from ideas and practices they find online.” Salvation a la carte, if you will.

Meanwhile, we have a Supreme Court majority composed of Roman Catholic fundamentalists including Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Amy Coney Barrett. At the turn of the 20th century, the Protestant majority worried that, due to Irish and Italian immigration, Catholics might take over. (How things have changed: The Republican Party back then smeared the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.”) Now, it seems, the Catholics have taken power—with unfortunate consequences for women’s health, majoritarian politics, and it seems, even gun-carry restrictions.

Coming soon to a venue near you: the Spanish Inquisition.

Can such a state of affairs continue in a would-be democracy? Certainly. The broad public may even feel that the religious minority who are calling the shots are more moral than they themselves are. Moreover, as the psychologist William James asserted in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, humans are more persuaded irrationally and emotionally than they are by reason. Hey, if you want to live in a rational society, move to Denmark! The U.S.A.—home to Cotton Mather, Stonewall Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Mary Baker Eddy, and Jerry Lee Lewis—was never about the cold light of reason.

Dinner: cornbread tamale pie and a kale and apple salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of the shysterish Better Call Saul and its Brit counterpoint, Silk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 268

A movie still from George Lucas’ THX 1138.

Sunday, June 19

The NYU medical facility that I visited on Thursday is a strange, futuristic place. It has taken me a few days to come to grips with just how alien the edifice truly is.

First of all, the NYU Langone Ambulatory Care Center is located at the intersection of 41st Street and the hyper-literally named Tunnel Exit Street. (The latter could serve as the title for its own, DeLillo-esque novel.) A very sterile, anonymous building suitable for an IRS office or Postal Services headquarters, you enter via self-operated revolving doors: An artificial intelligence seems to sense your presence. 

Proceeding through a capacious lobby, you go to the elevator bank that’s specified for your floor.  In an ordinary building, you’d just press the UP button. But here, that’s only the first step: Don’t avert your gaze, the button has questions. Enter your floor number please—then it will tell you which of four lifts you should enter, A1, A2, A3, or A4. 

(It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the elevator bank was expecting someone like me to go to floor 15 at around this time of day. A computer likely links the elevators to a schedule of appointments.)

I am the only passenger on A4, and it takes me directly to floor 15—no escape to another floor is possible since there are no numbered buttons inside the elevator. Once on 15, I find myself in another large, mostly empty lobby. Here and elsewhere, NYU has these handprint ID machines. It looks like you just place your palm on the mechanical palm-print insignia, and you are recognized and given entry. But I have never been able to make these devices work.

Fortunately, there’s one other human present. Behind a very long counter sits a lone receptionist—a Black woman with preposterously extended artificial eyelashes that curl up and touch her forehead. She asks if I have an appointment and what is my birthdate. Once cleared, I am directed to go to the waiting area, another substantial area filled with tidy rows of auditorium-appropriate furniture. There I will be the only human in sight. 

Not to belabor the point, but doesn’t all this seem rather Kafkaesque—or perhaps like a venue appropriate to an early George Lucas flick? I am also reminded of W.G. Sebald’s description of the simultaneously pharaonic and ultra-modern Bibliothèque nationale de France, a place that seems violently antithetical to the very notion of anything so quaint as a book or a word constructed of mere letters.

I survived my own encounter with the NYU machine, met with a doctor, and left in under an hour. No security-uniformed android interrupted my progress.

Dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Netflix’ You Don’t Know Me.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 267

Bring on those pistol-packin’ pedagogues!

Friday, June 17

Think back about your high-school teachers. Can you imagine any one of them wielding a Glock 9mm handgun?

It has been decades ago, I admit. But most of my high-school teachers were overweight and ungainly, nearsighted and middle-aged. One English teacher spoke of herself in the third person, in the mode of Ricky Henderson—so perhaps she wasn’t especially empathetic towards other people. 

There were a half-dozen football coaches—but that skill alone wasn’t enough to justify a job, so for some reason they were all given the extra task of teaching history. One such coach couldn’t be bothered to prepare lectures, so he simply read the textbook out loud to us in class. Meanwhile, the students daydreamed or misbehaved, throwing chewing gum or paper airplanes at one another. 

Imagine if this 300-pound-plus embodiment of distraction were confronted by a AR-15 toting miscreant. A catlike, Jason Bourne-esque first response? No, ‘fraid not.

The GOP governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine thinks such pedagogues would do just fine with weapons, so long as they had 24 hours of training. He has just signed a state law that empowers school districts to arm teachers as a preventive against Uvalde-like massacres. Vanity Fair writer Bess Levin—is she privy to some inside information?—writes in her Levin Report that Ohio “school districts could have armed art, history, and math teachers starting this fall.” Is this to be taken literally? Is there something about these disciplines that singles their teachers out as the best likely marksmen? Math-teacher-like precision? The longue durée perspective of history scholars? Or maybe the enhanced sensibility of would-be art appreciators? Go figure.

I just Googled “Glock handguns” and immediately was referred to several websites that will ship an automatic handgun to you overnight. The cheapest model was a mere $499. The same website also trades in a variety of Bushmaster long guns—the XM-15 Quick Response Carbine will set you back a mere $599. Hmmm—maybe a scope to go with that?

Emily and I are back in Manhattan, and so far in my rambles, I have not seen any heat-packing tourists. Maybe they’re all in line, buying up the last tickets to the soon-to-close Broadway crowd-pleaser “Come From Away.” I myself have had my eyes examined and met with a neurologist, and next week I’m due for a dental checkup. The handgun training will have to wait.

Dinner: the ever-agreeable pasta bolognese.

Entertainment: The Netflix courtroom drama You Don’t Know Me.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 266

Dodge City lawman Bat Masterson around 1911. Courtesy: The Library of Congress.

Monday, May 30

The violence of the Old West has been widely described—and magnified in countless Hollywood productions. But a look at the record of Wild West violence shows that it was nothing like as bloody and horrific as the current spate of AR-15 murders across the U.S.

A little background: In the immediate post-Civil War years, a number of “cattle towns” sprouted up across Kansas, encouraging great drives of the immense Texas longhorn herds to these railheads. Dodge City, Abilene, Wichita, Ellsworth, and Caldwell all came into being and flourished between 1867 and 1885. In 1867, a mere 35,000 head of Texas beef were driven to Abilene, with perhaps 20,000 being shipped from there via rail to points east. Wichita and Dodge City, each with links to the Santa Fe railroad, rose as important shipping points in the 1870s. In 1882, 200,000 head of cattle were sold in Dodge City alone; by 1910, 27 million cattle had made the trek from Texas to the Kansas towns.

But famously, when cattle drives ended, they unleashed upon the towns dozens of rowdy coyboys—suddenly flush with end-of-drive pay and eager to cut loose. Catering to their wants were legions of prostitutes, gambling halls, and 24-hour saloons. Brawls of every sort resulted: During Abilene’s third cattle season, 1869, one cowboy rode his horse into a saloon, pulled a gun on the bartenders, and upon exiting, engaged in a shootout with numerous other “desperate characters.” The towns were thus compelled to effect a variety of peace-keeping mechanisms—one of the most common being hiring a crew of former gunfighters as a police force.

All the same, in the words of historian Robert R. Dykstra’s 1970 work The Cattle Towns, there were relatively few fatalities. “Many legendary desperadoes and gunfighters sojourned in the cattle towns at one time or another, but few participated in slayings,” he writes. These notable badmen included Doc Holliday, Clay Allison, and the teen-aged gunman John Wesley Hardin. Nor did badge-wearing gunslingers contribute much to fatality stats: “Wild Bill” Hickok killed only two men during his one term as Abilene city marshal; Dodge City’s Wyatt Earp, only one; and “Bat” Masterson, also of Dodge, killed none at all.

According to Dykstra, between 1870 and 1885, total homicides in the five cattle towns amounted to only 45.

Many of the wanton cowpokes were likely no older, and probably no less unhappy, than the Uvalde, Texas killer, Salvador Ramos. But a six-shooter bears no comparison to the AR-15 that in only a few minutes fired off over 100 rounds in Uvalde—or to the other AR-15s used in every recent U.S. mass killing from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to the Buffalo, N.Y.  supermarket.

It’s no wonder the Uvalde police were afraid to face the shooter.

Dinner: the chickpea stew pasta e ceci, corn muffins, and a green salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of the Scandi thriller “The Bridge”

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–Chapter 265

The coal-mining company town of Jenkins, Ky at the turn of the 20th century.

Thursday, May 19

The current issue of MIT Technology Review is focused on so-called cybercurrencies and contains a jaw-dropper of its own: Crypto millionaires have plans to build their own private cities in Central America.

In an article entitled “Cities Built by Crypto,” tech writer Laurie Clarke describes how, in a plan endorsed by El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, that country is selling $1 billion worth of debt in U.S. dollars to fund the construction of Bitcoin City and Bitcoin mining operations.

The Salvadorean project is not alone: Other crypto investors are leaning on governments from Puerto Rico to Honduras to create semi-autonomous enterprise zones that, they say, will stimulate growth and enrich the locals.

Sounds like more enterprise-zone flapdoodle, you say? 

Yes, it seems the Ayn Rand-devotee crowd intends to keep plugging its dubious no-downside, rugged-individualist social vision until there’s a real meltdown. 

There’s more to the Salvadorean plan: Bitcoin City’s economy will run on that cybercurrency, be powered by geothermal energy from Conchagua Volcano, and be largely free of taxes…if things go according to the plan.

There’s even a non-profit foundation dedicated to the proliferation of such crypto-cities around the planet, the Free Private Cities Foundation. In such places, as envisioned by foundation President Titus Gebel and former World Bank economist Paul Romer, residents pay an annual fee for such services as policing—and if the services aren’t provided, these “contract citizens” can take the supposed provider before an independent arbitration tribunal. 

To me, the author of a book about company towns, it all sounds a bit like a company town…as envisaged by a lawyer. But there’s a lot yet to be disclosed: Would the managing enterprise own all institutions—from the hospital to the newspaper to housing and the company store—as in such company towns as Kannapolis, N.C. or the original Lowell, Mass.? I mean, there’s already company “scrip,” a.k.a. Bitcoin…so why not?

And what happens when the next pandemic hits? I mean, if such towns’ citizens are all just independent free actors, just what entity will tell them there should be curfews or a lockdown? Who would tell people they must wear masks or get vaccinations? 

Oh, I see—forget about public health. In this life, you’re on your own.

Dinner: spaghetti bolognese and a green salad.

Entertainment: Another episode of season three of Scandi thriller The Bridge.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 264

Saturday, May 14

More startling developments of the past few years have come to light. Here are some that should have been on my recent list: 

*During 2020, gun deaths in the U.S. rose to the highest number ever recorded, more than 45,000. This resulted in part from a pandemic-paranoia-inspired gun-buying spree. The homicide rate was  the highest since 1994, but half of all deaths were suicides. Black men ages 15 to 34 accounted for 38% of all gun homicide victims in 2020, even though this group represented just 2% of the U.S. population.

*After a 30% increase in drug-overdose deaths during 2020, the rise continued with overdose deaths rising another 15% in 2021. A growing share of deaths involve fentanyl, a class of potent synthetic opioids that are often mixed with other drugs, and methamphetamine, a synthetic stimulant. 

*On May 12, 2022 Biden announced that the COVID death total in the U.S. had reached one million.

*The first image of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy has been exhibited by the Event Horizon Telescope, an international scientific collaboration.

In personal—and much less galactic—news, we have purchased the 2019 Subaru Outback that we have leased for the past three years. This especially makes sense as we have driven it so little over the period of the pandemic—our odometer shows a bit over 12,000 miles. Kelley Blue Book online shows similar cars selling for around $32,000. If so, ours has barely depreciated, $34,343 being the value at the time of the lease in May of 2019. And all told, we paid a lot less than either figure.

I have been reading the literary novel/high-grade science fiction work Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The central development of the book is a global pandemic that wipes out 99% of humanity. The author caught a wave, as she published the book in 2014, just ahead of the real-world pandemic. Reading the book is a weird experience: The events it describes are much more dire than those we have undergone. But you can easily imagine that things might have turned out something like they do in Station Eleven–or that an even more severe, coming pandemic could have some of the characteristics Mandel describes.

Large cities have been mostly abandoned. Small bands of human survivors live in former suburban fast-food joints and abandoned airports. People break into a Chili’s to scavenge food; otherwise they eat deer or other slain animals. The highways are clotted with abandoned cars, some containing dead victims of the plague. There is no gasoline, no transport at all, and no electricity. Small bands of whacked-out youth, often led by Manson-like “prophets,” roam the countryside, seeking people and things to exploit. Everyone carries weapons.

It’s all horrifying—and spellbinding.

Dinner: Szechuan eggplant and fresh asparagus.

Entertainment: a re-watch of season two of the hugely popular Scandi noir, The Bridge (2012).

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 263

“Chess, anyone?”

Sunday, May 8

We seem to be in the middle of another tidal wave of disasters. The jaw-droppingly bad happenings come so thick and fast that you can’t absorb one before another hits. If you thought the Russian invasion of Ukraine was bad, just wait—here comes the U.S. Supreme Court to drop its own bunker-buster on women and the prospect of a rational society!

After a recent conversation in which I tried just to list a few events, I realized my recollection of all that has befallen us in the past two-and-a-half years was slipping: Which came first— Trump’s pro-hydroxychloroquine spiel or the killing of George Floyd?

To put it all in order, I spent some time compiling a timeline of jaw-droppers, beginning with the January, 2020 Chicago police murder of Tyree Davis and the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan—and ending with the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft reversal of the 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Along the way, there were some interesting juxtapositions. Consider: 

During the first eight months of 2020, U.S. police murdered 164 Black youths. Meanwhile, a pandemic emerged that racked up 2 million recorded deaths worldwide; Donald Trump was acquitted in his first (!) impeachment trial thanks to solid Republican votes; mass shootings took place in Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; a volcano erupted in Taal, Philippines that forced 225,000 people to evacuate; Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual abuse; wildfires burned millions of acres from California to Washington State; and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, soon to be replaced by Catholic fundamentalist Amy Coney Barrett.

Might as well curse God and die, did you say?

Hold on. 

In January of 2021, as Congress was about to certify the results of the national election that made Joe Biden president, a Trump riot in the Capitol sought to gum up the electoral works. Orange Man regularly declared the election results a fraud, having tried to get several states to reverse their electoral votes. Five people died in the D.C. riot–but shortly thereafter the Senate declined to find Trump guilty of “insurrection.”

All the same, by August, 90% of seniors had received COVID vaccinations—despite rampant denialism and flagrant resistance even to mask-wearing, particularly in certain “red” states.

But it was no time for rejoicing. New COVID variants continued to appear. And shortly after the turn of the year 2022, Russia began an all-out invasion of Ukraine. Then came the Supreme Court bombshell.

War, pestilence, death, and famine—the last of these soon to be upon much of the world thanks to the Ukraine/Russia disruption of agriculture and trade. The Four Horsemen ride on.

Dinner: shakshuka with feta cheese and a green salad.

Entertainment: Jazz-lounge melodrama The Man I Love (1946) with Ida Lupino.

HERE IS MY COMPLETE LIST:

Jan 4, 2020 Chicago police shoot and kill 25-year-old Tyree Davis, the first of 164 Blacks to be slain by cops in the first eight months of the year.

January 8 In a random, ambush-style shooting in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, two people are killed, two wounded.

January 9 Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan China

January 12 A volcano erupts at Taal, Philippines, with a 500-meter-tall lava fountain spreading heavy ash across the landscape, 225,000 people evacuating, and Manila air traffic halted.

January 21 1st U.S. Covid case reported; Wuhan quarantine (on 23rd).

February 5 In impeachment trial, Senate acquits Trump.

February 23 Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old jogger, is pursued through suburban Georgia by three whites in pickups who surround and murder him.

February 24 Harvey Weinstein convicted of rape, sexual abuse.

February 26 Five people are shot dead by a former employee at a Molson Coors plant in Milwaukee. The gunman then commits suicide.

March 9 Stock market crashes due to pandemic.

March 13 Louisville, KY, police shoot and kill 26-year-old Breonna Taylor after entering her home “searching for illegal drugs.”

March 13 US health emergency declared by Trump; billions in funding unlocked.

March 19 California issues mandatory stay-at-home order.

April 8 Trump promotes malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as Covid cure.

May 21 U.S. and AstraZeneca to speed vaccine development.

May 25 George Floyd, 46, killed by Minneapolis police who kneel on his neck, arresting him over a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd is filmed repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” Nationwide Black Lives Matter protests follow his death, and hundreds of buildings including the Minneapolis police station are burned. There’s a nightly curfew in New York City. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter.

May 28 US COVID-19 deaths pass 100,000.

June 10 Confirmed cases of COVID-19 at 2 million globally.

June 12 Rayshard Brooks, 27, killed by Atlanta police who find him asleep in a drive-through lane at a Wendy’s restaurant.

June Seattle police and BLM protesters in a week of standoffs.

July Portland, OR, protests escalate. Disguised federal agents participate in crackdown.

August 9 In a block-party shooting in Washington, D.C., A 17- year-old boy is killed and 21 others injured.

August 18 Democrats nominate Biden for President.

August Wildfires burn millions of acres from California to Washington State. Hurricane Henri threatens East Coast.

August 11 Trump administration reportedly agrees to pay $1.5 billion to Moderna for 100 million doses of its vaccine candidate; COVID becomes 3rd leading cause of U.S. deaths behind heart disease and cancer.

August 23 Jacob Blake, 29, shot in back by Kenosha, WI, police. Mass protests ensue, during which White militant Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an assault rifle, kills two people.

September Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, Trump nominates Court of Appeals judge Amy Coney Barrett as replacement; Hurricane Ida flooding in NYC

October 2 Trump (hospitalized) and wife test positive for COVID.

October 19 Global cases of coronavirus top 40 million.

October 26 Philadelphia police shoot and kill Walter Wallace, 27.

November 18 A 44,000-person trial shows that the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective.

December First US vaccinations against Covid; Congress passes $2.3 trillion Covid-19 relief bill that includes $600 checks for all; at year’s end 2.8 million in US have been vaccinated.

January 6, 2021 Trump tries to block election certification by Congress. During riot by Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., four people die of medical emergencies; Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt fatally shot by police officer inside Capitol building


January 13 Trump impeached for second time over “incitement of insurrection.” 57 senators vote “guilty,” less than the two-thirds majority needed to convict, and 43 senators vote “not guilty,” resulting in Trump being acquitted of the impeachment charges on February 13.

March 11 President Biden signs $1.9 trillion economic relief bill.

March Delta variant of Covid arrives in US and quickly becomes dominant variant.

March 18 A gunman kills eight people at three Atlanta spas, including six Asian women.

March 22 A gunman kills 10 inside a Boulder, Colorado grocery.

April 11 Policeman shoots and kills Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, MN.

April 15 A gunman kills eight people in a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis.

August, 2021 70% of US citizens have at least one vaccination, including 90% of seniors; CDC recommends 3rd or “booster” shot for immunocompromised.

September 9 Biden announces all companies with over 100 employees must mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.

November Satellite imagery shows a buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, stoking fears of a possible invasion. Over the previous six years, Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine and pro-Russian separatist militants have taken control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

November 19 At homicide trial, Kyle Rittenhouse is found not guilty of all charges.

November 25 Omicron variant emerges in South Africa.

November 30 A shooter kills four at a suburban Detroit high school, the deadliest school shooting of the year.

December 2 First U.S. case of Omicron variant

December 14 U.S. death toll stands at around 800,000 compared with 300,000 of previous December.

January 7, 2022 Arbery killers the McMichaels and Bryan are sentenced to life imprisonment.

February 24 In the largest military operation since World War II, Russia invades Ukraine with as many as 200,000 troops. Kharkiv, Kyiv and other cities are bombed. Western nations impose major sanctions on Russia, block oil and gas exports.

April 26 The CDC lists COVID “variants of concern,” including Omicron B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.1.1, BA.2, BA.3, BA.4 and BA.5

May 3 Leak of U.S. Supreme Court draft ruling overturning abortion-rights landmark case Roe vs. Wade. A reversal, which could come in late June, would overturn a near 50- year precedent.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 262

Way out west…in another lifetime.

Monday, April 25

Hanging around this house like some aging truant has been a dog-eared copy of Wallace Stegner’s once-celebrated novel Angle of Repose. I’m reading it now. A tale of surprising people who reluctantly made their home in the wild American west, the novel won a Pulitzer in 1972—and immediately became the subject of controversy. 

Was the novel mediocre as some charged or, worst of all, middlebrow—unworthy of high honors? Some of its characters are renamed and fictionalized versions of true-life people. Did Stegner’s use of the real person’s actual words—Wikipedia says “the novel is directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West”—represent plagiarism…or an infringement on History?

Food for thought…maybe. In fact, lots of novels have trod on similar ground. Two that randomly come to mind are Don DeLillo’s 1988 Libra, which unhesitatingly dug around in the life of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; and Philip Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, which offered an alternative past in which aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg ran against and defeated President Franklin Roosevelt. Did these novels not commit unpardonable sins—and pander to the kind of people who find actual history books boring?

(Roth attached a “true chronology of major figures” as a postscript to his alternate history lest any reader get carried away into fantasyland. QAnon is far from the only evidence that many citizens of our age are drawn toward Pizzagate delusions.)

However, rather than distorting the past in the manner of many cowboy movies or openly mythologizing it as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Stegner’s tale often works as a corrective to wide-eyed, heroic cowboys-vs.-Indians stories. The West, he tells us, was exploited and “developed” by the same sort of people who are today destroying the Amazon rain forest and leaning on workers from the corner Starbucks to sweatshops in Southeast Asia. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but many people would prefer a different version of the Old West.

One of Stegner’s main characters, Oliver Ward, works as a mining engineer in an 1870s California mining camp, where his wife Susan joins him. For a time, his life seems pleasant and productive. Then Susan realizes that he has been concealing from her the true sentiment among the camp’s workers. “The whole place is wormy with fear and hate,” he at last reveals, adding that the manager’s “way of handling that is to fire anybody who opens his mouth or gets the slightest out of line,” including one 14-year veteran discharged for breaking the rule that all purchases must be made at the company store. The man is fired and blacklisted—as are any others who would stand up for him.

Such company-town life was all too common in the U.S.A.—in fact, it IS common in the contemporary United States. You can say or do whatever you like—just not on company time. Just wait until self-described “free-speech absolutist” Elon Musk takes over Twitter. The Trumpist berserkers will have a field day, but truly interesting commentators on such subjects as Russian aggression in Ukraine, or on Musk himself, will find little place for expression.

Dinner: stuffed bell peppers, made in an instant via our new Instant Pot.

Entertainment: Having just watched the fascinating Kurosawa revenge flick The Bad Sleep Well, we will likely see another Japanese flick, Stray Dog.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2022–chapter 261

Words of local wisdom.

Tuesday, April 12

Just over two years ago, I amped up this blog so that it became a journal of daily life and current events under the then-new Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. 

At that point, then-President Trump was denying the seriousness of the infection, there were a mere 2,100 deaths across the U.S. and 124,000 infected, with one-third of the deaths happening in New York City. 

The Times had begun a special obits section devoted to Covid victims, it was difficult to get face masks and toilet paper, and it would be almost a year before any vaccinations took place.

As of today, 984,000 Americans have died.

And nowadays, many people are tentatively welcoming the return of “normal,” as the daily average number of new cases hovers around 30,000.  And yet…coronavirus cases are ticking back up. One month after lifting an indoor mask mandate, Philadelphia has reinstated it.  In New York City, masks are not required in schools—but they are mandatory on mass transit and in hospitals.

I got my second booster shot—in other words, four total vaccination shots—on Friday (April 8). Unlike the panicky crush of two years back, this was no trouble: I made an online appointment at CVS pharmacy, reported on time, and was injected and on my way within 20 minutes.

I even got us a resupply of toilet paper while there. 

TP, plus two bars of health-giving Ghiradelli “intense dark” sea salt and almond chocolate. And three, free N-95 masks, which, I was surprised to note, seem a bit like the things you see construction workers wearing.

It was warm-ish last Friday, with temps around 60 degrees. Right now, the skies have cleared and it’s 54 degrees in East Hampton.

Dinner fixin’s.

Dinner: garlicky Cuban pork, marinated with orange juice, lime, olive oil, brown sugar, and oregano and cooked in the Instant Pot.

Entertainment: more movies by Hong Kong phenom Wong Kar Wai? In recent days we’ve seen the puzzling Chungking Express, the goofy-violent As Tears Go By, and the magnificent In the Mood for Love. There’s a prequel to the last of these,  Days of Being Wild, so we may watch that—or maybe it’s time to move on to other stuff.