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 118

Marcello floats in 8 1/2.

Wednesday, July 22

“And might it not be… that we have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished…?”

—W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

And might it not be that we keep such appointments via our dreams?

“One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born with a disposition to recollect; this comes only with changes and separations in life—separations from people, from places, from events and situations… It is, thus, discontinuities, the great discontinuities in life that we seek to bridge.

—Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars

In a dream, it is night and I am with my mother (who died in 2005) at the Memphis house where I grew up. Distantly, I hear her say something like “I’ll be right back.” And she disappears. I search for her in the dark, calling “Geneva” out the back door, then up into the attic via a closet that contains the furnace, then out the front door into the darkness. There is no response. I look out the front and just see the grassy lawn—no one is around.

Freud says all dreams are attempts at wish fulfillment. So maybe this was an attempt to get my mother to return. But my dreams are quite varied and only a few can be interpreted as wish fulfillment.

Places that often appear in my dreams: my grandmother’s dark old house, my childhood home, Macy’s department store and its quaint old wooden-stair escalator, jazz and classical music concerts, and trains—particularly subways both in Boston and New York. What’s with the trains? Is there a sense of movement in sleep, as with Marcello Mastroianni’s floating in the air at the beginning of Fellini’s 8 1/2? And what’s with Macy’s??

It is not unusual for me to make angry, incoherent noises in my sleep—and for Emily to wake me up. In a recent case, I dreamed I was asleep, stretched out somehow inside a car—probably my mother’s Plymouth Valiant. The covers are comfy—then somebody breaks into the car and snatches away the blanket. I begin shouting for this person to bring back the covers. 

Another such case: I dream there is an intruder. I see him standing in the living room, turned in profile to me, and behind him I can see the oval, gold-framed mirror that stood on the wall at my childhood home. I can also see Emily in the next room, lying in bed asleep. Angry and afraid, I begin to shout at the man, and to throw things at him, including lightweight barbells. My shouts cause Emily to wake me up.

And yet another night terror: At our house on Long Island, I am looking out the side door. It is dark, but I can see that the trees are filled with large, threatening birds, flapping their wings and cawing ominously. I begin yelling at them to go away. Wake up, Hardy, says Emily.

She says that in such circumstances, she isn’t sure what to do. Should she wake me—or will that just frighten me more?

Not all of my dreams are terrors. Here’s another, peaceful reverie.

I go for a walk after dark, accompanied by a dog and a cat. I give the dog a pat on its belly. But I realize that the duo wants to go home, so we go back. Almost immediately, I see the cat on the bed alongside another cat, both fast asleep. The dog has disappeared, perhaps gone to an adjoining room. I am not sleepy, so I stay awake, content to watch.

Dinner: cold pasta salad with snap peas, roasted red peppers, grilled onions, Kalamata olives, cucumbers, and parsley.

Entertainment: More episodes of Rebus on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 43

What dreams may come?

Monday, April 20

We waited in the office lobby. When the meeting ended, Sir Andrew rushed past us dismissively, then continuing to walk toward the stairs, he indicated that Gareth should come with him. Pointing at a typed page he carried, he angrily singled out a paragraph:

You’ve got to pick up every stihch. You can’t miss even one. Every stihch. 

This must be corrected, he said.

A squeamish looking Gareth nodded. Sir, he said, in terms of the work. We’re pretty stretched at the moment. Must this be tended to immediately?

I’m telling you, said Sir Andrew. Do this first. Whether you should receive a significant posting or just a lower level one depends upon getting it fixed.

Why should I have such strange dreams at 4:30 a.m., with arrogant, aquiline-faced aristocrats and their squirming underlings? It must have to do with watching too much British TV, but there may be echoes here of Babylon Berlin as well.

We’re anxiously awaiting our Peapod delivery of groceries, scheduled for tomorrow between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Such is life under the quarantine—it’s supposedly heroic to do nothing but wait.

Emily is worried about the weather—rain is predicted, and the delivery guy has to leave our stuff outside where we can wipe off any viruses before transporting things inside. We have our rubber gloves and a spray bottle of diluted bleach, which can be used to squirt tins of stuff. Fresh veggies are supposed to require only a rinse with water, while boxes will get only a wipe-off with a paper towel. The virus is said to be able to live longer on metal and for only a few hours on cardboard.

Emily is in charge of the Peapod list, and one can make corrections or additions until 11:59 p.m. tonight. I keep thinking of stuff that may or may not be on the list—then asking her to check. Are we due to get more onions? What about canned tomatoes? And given our experience last time, there would seem to be only a 50-50 chance that any given thing will actually be delivered. What we really need are walnuts, honey, oatmeal, and any sort of meats. I figure that after Peapod comes and goes, I will likely have to go down to a nearby bodega and get several of these things.

For some time, I have had lots of dreams, probably due to a prescription drug that I take. These dreams are not often scary, and sometimes just entertaining. Over the past years, many have taken place at my childhood home, on one or two occasions featuring an intruder who’s trying to get in through the back door. Here, just to keep things lively, are a few examples:

I am spreading tomato sauce on a concrete walkway in a basement (not a familiar place). This seems odd even to me, but I had seen someone doing it and that made it seem a good idea. Still, I want to hurry in case someone sees me and asks what on earth I am doing. I use a spoon and just splash the stuff around, then spread it out evenly as you would with a pizza.

Before bed, I consider having some ice cream, but I fall asleep instead. Then, in the middle of the night after getting up to go to the bathroom, I dream that I hear Emily clanking her spoon against her bowl: It seems she got ice cream and I didn’t.

It is night, and I am at my childhood home with my mother. Distantly, I hear her say something like “I’ll be right back.” And she disappears. I search for her in the dark, calling her name out the back door, then up into the attic, then out the front door into the darkness. There is no response, but I am sure she will reappear. (In fact, she died in 2005.)

And finally, a quote from Oliver Sacks’ “The Landscape of His Dreams”: “One may be born with the potential for a prodigious memory, but one is not born with a disposition to recollect; this comes only with changes and separations in life—separations from people, from places, from events and situations.…All of us, finally, are exiles from the past.”

Tonight’s dinner: Linguini with asparagus pesto and a lettuce salad with cucumber. Lots of cookies.

Tonight’s entertainment: one Twilight Zone and two episodes of Babylon Berlin.