A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 133

Sunday, August 16

On Friday, Emily’s eagerly anticipated Zoom chat with her primary care doctor was another near-miss. At first, she attempted to connect using her Zoom-ready laptop—but that didn’t work at all. Then, she tried to connect using her Android phone, and she and the doctor could each see one another but there was no audio. So the doctor sent her a message saying they should just have an old-fashioned phone conversation.

That seemed to work fine. Emily had many questions ranging from prescription dosage to records of old back X-rays. And she told the doc about her plans to have an early-September mammogram and to see an oncologist and a dermatologist. None of this really required video. The Zoom phenomenon remains shrouded in mystery so far as we’re concerned.

Dinner: canned Campbell beef barley soup and a mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

Entertainment: final episodes of the Netflix series The Trial.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 129

Monday, August 10

Yesterday, my birthday, had its ups and downs. On the positive side, Emily gave me another haircut, so my bangs wouldn’t keep falling into my eyes. I cut my toenails. And we had a nice outing to the pond across from the Springs General Store, an area that was off-limits for some months but now seems to have reopened. There’s a wooden footbridge across the pond—it’s really more like a little stream at some points—where you can sit and watch the wild ducks frolic in the water.

The downside was plenty no-good: Emily placed an online food order to an Italian sandwich place, Villa’s. She ordered the Italian cold-cut sandwich that’s known as a Villa Combo, a pear salad, and two cannoli, all to be ready at 5:30 p.m. We received three—three!—e-mail confirmations of our order. But when we went to the place, the one person working at the counter said there was no such order. He kept showing me his tablet computer, inviting me to find my name and my order on it—otherwise, there was no order. Maybe we placed it at some other restaurant.

I gave up for a while and went outside to fume. Then I went back in and told him that we’d had three confirmations of the order. Again, he produced this tablet…and while I stood there, his lone coworker quietly slipped a tinfoil-wrapped submarine sandwich in front of him. The attached receipt showed our entire order. He got the salad and invited me to go to the refrigerated case across the store and get my own cannoli. 

Under non-COVID conditions, this would be just another minor headache. But it’s a smallish store, increasingly filled with other customers and there’s no social distancing. Placing the order on the internet and paying in advance was intended to avoid just this sort of situation.

On other fronts, I’m still spending hours on the phone attempting to get Optimum/Altice to restore our Internet connection. We enjoyed it for all of a week—then suddenly, it went kerflooey. I called the company yesterday and a know-nothing rep said there were outages on “our block, New Jersey, and the Bronx.” As if these places were right next to one another. Today’s rep—the second one of the day, I should add, as I was cut off by the first one—seems more together, but he still has to stick to the program. He had me reboot the modem and then, in response to my insistent demands, he offered to send someone out to look at our connection on Wednesday, August 19. (Today is the 10th.) 

I insisted that, as a new customer who has had a terrible experience so far, they should really send someone today. I just think they have never established a good cable connection and show few signs of doing so. There’s supposed to be a cable running from our house, then underground and under the street, over to where it connects to some device on the other side of Sycamore Drive. Instead, we have an above-ground cable, tacked up to a tree and running over the street at higher-than-truck level, then down another tree and finally connecting to their box. 

Back to the phone rep. As he was “looking for an alternative” time for a rep to come, he cut me off again. In all, he cut me off three times.

That’s where it stands at 9:30 a.m. I first telephoned them at 7:50.

Trying to put together an overall analysis of what’s going on, I’m tempted to say it’s just all my fault. But I think there’s an element of these companies attempting to use technology to lessen the need for actual human labor—and time and again, that doesn’t work out. The low-wage folks who must fill the sandwich orders or make appointments for Internet techies are overwhelmed. 

Tomorrow morning I have a scheduled video conference with an NYU neurologist. Absent an internet connection, of course, that won’t work. So I called NYU to say that a mere, old-fashioned telephone conference would, I’m sure, be fine. I explained my no-tech situation. And the appointment clerk immediately asked, “do you have a WI-FI connection?” 

You can’t win. She was probably multitasking—or on TikTok.

Dinner: leftover Villa’ Combo sandwich, potato salad, and a green salad.

Entertainment: If the Verizon mobile hot-spot will work, we might view the final episodes of Netflix’ Belgian thriller The Break.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 128

Nap time? Midday rest periods may be natural.

Friday, August 7

My father always took a post-lunch nap. This seemed peculiar, even quaint to me—something old people did, though he was hardly old. Or maybe it was a holdover from a more-rural society. I didn’t know. 

He would come home from work for a quick and simple lunch, then a half-hour nap. I couldn’t do it. I asked him: How do you fall asleep? He said I should just lie really, really still and I’d drift off. But I couldn’t—even in early grades at school, when you were told to bring in a little mat from home and nap time was a regular part of the school day.

Now, the pandemic lockdown with its erasure of all meaningful tasks is encouraging me to reconsider. A post-lunch nap now seems eminently sensible—and what else is there to do anyway?

A little online research suggests that our current sleep patterns are very much a product of history. The ancients apparently practiced “biphasic sleep”—two periods of sleep with a spell of alertness in between. During the middle-of-the-night period of wakefulness, the ancients attended prayers, had sex, maybe did a few chores, and so forth. But, of course, the absence of much light placed a limit on activity.

The advent of the industrial revolution required workers to keep to a regular and often grueling schedule. Up with the 5 a.m. factory bells, labor for a 12-hour day, then off to home and early bed so you’d be ready for another day. 

Better lighting of streets and residences made longer periods of wakefulness possible. By the end of the 1600s, fifty of Europe’s major cities had candle or oil street lighting, and electric street lighting came to many cities in the late 1800s. (Manhattan had electrical “arc” lighting on its streets by the 1870s, and electrical systems in private houses appeared there in the 1880s, first in the domicile of banker J.P. Morgan.) By the 1920s, doctors were discouraging a biphasic sleep schedule, instead favoring a single eight-hour period of rest. But in Latin America and parts of Europe, biphasic schedules with a built-in post-lunch siesta, are still common.

Apparently, if people aren’t compelled to do otherwise, they gravitate to the two-period sleep pattern.

According to the BBC, in the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr subjected a group of subjects to a daily 14-hour dose of darkness. By the fourth week of the experiment, a distinct sleeping pattern emerged, during which the subjects would doze for four hours, then wake for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep period.

The seasonal variation of sunlight surely has a lot to do with sleep patterns as well. And then there is noise: There’s really no cessation of noise in New York City, with garbage trucks, sirens, and pneumatic drillers liable to punch holes in any sleeper’s schedule. So when we go back to the city in September, we’ll have to revise our sleep patterns all over again. 

Dinner: chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad with avocado.

Entertainment: Netflix’ offbeat Belgian crime drama The Break (La Treve)

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 127

Sweet potato pie.

Tuesday, August 4

A spate of newspaper downsizings and closings has prompted lamentations from that bit of the press that is still standing.

The pandemic’s hit to newspaper ad sales, media giants’ takeovers, and industry consolidation have definitely led to a diminution of information about what’s going on in small-town and rural America. These may even represent a threat to democracy.

But not to get too carried away, the focus of many now-defunct newspapers was often not very profound. The Memphis Press-Scimitar, the afternoon paper that I have been writing about, was frequently viewed as a “scandal sheet” that gave exaggerated emphasis to the gaudy and sensational. Commercial pressures, a lack of resources, and the prevailing conventional wisdom stood in the way of better journalism.

Still, it was a journalism that some observers of American folkways would likely have found intriguing. It responded to the everyday concerns of the citizenry—especially when these concerns weren’t particularly weighty.

It was not unusual for a few of these citizens to show up each day at the entranceway to the Press-Scimitar’s large, open-space newsroom. And often, they’d come with stuff to show and tell—particularly, oddly shaped fruits and vegetables.

This was the oddball focus of one columnist in particular. It was a rare week that didn’t see a column by this writer accompanied by a photo of a weird veggie: a summer squash that happened to resemble Abraham Lincoln, say, or maybe a tomato that bore some resemblance to a mallard duck. The photo and profile of the vegetable would, of course, allow the writer to elaborate a bit about the life and times of the people who’d sired the veggie. What did they think of this and that? 

Other inevitable fodder for stories included society fetes at the antebellum mansions of one or another grande dame; whatever-happened-to profiles of schoolboy athletes of years gone by; and reports on the current doings of famous Memphians including golf pro Carey Middlecoff and Metropolitan Opera diva Marguerite Piazza.

Memphis was just an overgrown country town, many of its citizens said proudly. Why, it was a town that had more churches than gas stations!

For a while Memphis aspired to rival big-city Atlanta. But when financial pressures prompted the Memphis government to consider shutting down its bus lines, you’d start to hear: Well, Birmingham, Alabama did that and got along just fine. So which was Memphis to be: Mid-America’s big new city—or a nowhere-ville that envied a place where Black churches got bombed by the KKK?

The Press-Scimitar closed in the 1980s—a decade that was hard on such late-in-the-day publications.

Between the growth of the suburbs, where delivery was more difficult, and the rising popularity of television news, there seemed to be little future for an afternoon newspaper in the view of The Press-Scimitar’s parent company, Scripps-Howard. The paper’s best decades had been the 1930s and ‘40s, when it sided with the uprising against Memphis’ political boss E.H. Crump and helped get Estes Kefauver elected to the U.S. Senate.

By the 1980s, though, both Crump and the newspaper’s crusading history were very distant memories.

Dinner: Pasta with asparagus pesto and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of Britbox’ policier River.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 124

Life amid the ruins. Photo: Artnet.com

Friday, July 31

It’s beginning to feel like autumn already.

Emily is scheduling medical appointments back in the city for the end of August and the second week of September. I don’t want her to face it all on her own, so I’ll go along. Maybe I should make medical appointments for that time period as well, maybe even get a haircut. It’ll be weird to be back in Gotham, to see the ruins of civilization as it were. I’ll certainly take my camera and get lots of photos.

Once those missions have been accomplished, should we turn around and come back to East Hampton? We could collect a bunch of stuff we have missed—from clothes to kitchen implements, spices, and music CDs. Are we imagining spending the winter out here? Down coats? Winter boots?

Suddenly, those news stories about New York City under the pandemic are much more compelling. 

As that time approaches, we’ll have to do some investigation. What’s it like in our building? Is our apartment habitable?

Dinner: hot dogs with sauerkraut and leftover pasta salad.

Entertainment: the amnesia drama Tabula Rasa on Netflix and one episode of Britbox’ River. Both shows have emotionally damaged protagonists, and both are superior to much of the stuff we have been watching.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 123

Number, please.

Thursday, July 30

Attending to all these humdrum matters has robbed me of any ability to write something interesting for the website. 

This morning, I spent more time on the phone waiting for a functionary to schedule a repairman—in this case for the landline phone, which is only partly operative since Optimum set up the temporary Internet connection. It’s a good thing we have the Internet connection, though. We’d be pulling our hair out without that fix however temporary it may be. 

It may rain just as Peapod’s truck arrives. Their whole shtick is mysterious. Earlier this afternoon, they sent a note revealing just which of our items will not be coming: No walnuts, no nuts of any kind. No tofu, no ice cream, and limited cookies. The actual order might be missing other things—this is just the official “out of stock” list.

As one waits, it’s hard to stay away from the kitchen—to quit raiding the small amount of junk food we have remaining. There are still some onion-and-sour-cream potato chips and some Ritz crackers. No cheese, however. Each fortnight as we near a Peapod delivery time, we go from near famine to—I won’t say feast, but a more substantial larder at least. Yes, it’s hard to stay away from the cliche of “feast or famine.”

Tonight’s dinner: a ziti salad with snow peas, grape tomatoes, roasted red peppers, scallions, Kalamata olives, and artichoke hearts. On the side, a bit of leftover coleslaw.

Entertainment: Netflix’ amnesia drama Tabula Rasa.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 122

Wednesday, July 29

Troubles with my website continue. After further conversation with another rep from the web host Media Temple, who can find nothing wrong, in the late afternoon I tried logging on again—and once again get the message that the Mac’s web browser Safari can’t find the server. Then, a brainwave! I tried getting into www.hardygreen.com using a different browser—Google Chrome. And that worked, so maybe that’s the ticket.

We have numerous problems: At the moment only one landline phone is working—the one we have plugged into the new Altice modem. Other extensions don’t get a dial tone. I suspect there’s a transition underway, and once Optimum has taken over the landline from Verizon, all will be ok again. 

Meanwhile, Emily is having problems with medical stuff: physical therapy, mammograms, etc. Rather than going back to Manhattan for these things, she wants to take care of them out here on Long Island. But every new caregiver’s office raises problems. Man (and woman) is born to trouble, as it says in the Book of Job (I think).

Finally, we’re looking ahead to another Peapod delivery tomorrow. Once they come—sometime late in the day—we’ll find out just what they are delivering and just what is “out of stock.” Will we get either fresh mozzarella or pork chops? What about an eggplant or the always essential walnuts? Nothing can be assumed.

At least, for the moment, the heat and humidity has waned. It’s a tad cooler—81 degrees with rain and thundershowers forecast for tomorrow.

Dinner: more beans and rice plus a green salad.

Entertainment: Mhz’ crime drama Murder at the Lake, followed by old episodes of Yes, Minister.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 120

Testing, testing. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congrexs.

Friday, July 24

Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.

In a rational society, Trump would be institutionalized (maybe at Mar-a-Lago) and treated by a therapist for his excruciating, incapacitating insecurity–as shown in his need to assert, despite all evidence, that he does well on tests. 

For it is tests that come up time and again: the mental acuity test that he’s now trumpeting, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and…COVID testing, as if that too were some kind of exam aimed at humiliating Trump. If not for COVID testing, the infection rate would be much lower, he says. 

The very word “test” sets him off.

I suspect his father baited him, that Donald was ill-at-ease among his peers, was scorned by teachers, and finally, fearing failure, paid a substitute to take his SAT, as his neice asserts in a recent, much-discussed book. (He is still paying in the sense that he feels he would have flunked.) Getting into Wharton was no big deal—it was clear that daddy would cover the costs. 

Amid the raving, it seems increasingly possible that Donald will have to be put away come November.

Or, like Woodrow Wilson who suffered a stroke during his second term, Don will hang out in the White House while somebody else handles the actual “work” of being President.

During the last presidential election, a portion of the electorate was in the mood to break windows and scrawl graffiti on the Washington Monument. Trump’s election was an act of political vandalism. There’s less of that now—unless such anger is resurfacing in the ranks of a very different cause, that of the Black Lives Matter protesters.

The “deplorables” who make up Trump’s most vocal base have likely gravitated to other activities. On my walks around this neighborhood, I have frequently passed an isolated corner house with a flagpole bearing a large, blue flag reading, “Trump: No More Bullshit.”

But nowadays, there’s no flag in evidence. Bullshit walks.

I also see many fewer pickup trucks bearing Trump bumper stickers. Once, such stickers were like a neck tattoo or a prominently displayed Confederate flag: a statement that “I’m a rebel!” 

Today, the rebels are all headed for the marble-icon graveyard. No one seems to care very much.

Dinner: leftover frittata with mushrooms, corn muffins, and lettuce salad with avocado and grape tomatoes.

Entertainment: Episodes of the French drama The Forest.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 119

Glyphs of mystery.

Thursday, July 23

Yesterday, a set of unusual markings appeared in our yard and out in the street—circles, letters, numbers, and arrows in red, orange, and blue. I saw no one making the markings, and they are as indecipherable as the hieroglyphs of an ancient race—but they portend the arrival of our new Internet connection. 

I eagerly called our Optimum contact, but after more reflection and investigation, it seems these are likely just the work of a markings crew. A different crew still has to come and install a cable. Then, yet another operative must come and hook up a modem and router. 

The blue lines and paint splotches probably indicate the placement of our Suffolk County Water Authority connection. The Optimum folks likely want to avoid damaging SCWA’s stuff. What is the orange paint—electricity? Maybe the red arrows and measurements are where the Internet cable will actually be placed. 

I think the Optimum cable will connect to some magic box on the opposite side of the street and run across our yard up to the house. Question: How will they get the cable under the street? In Manhattan, I believe they would get out the jackhammers and make nasty gashes in the asphalt. What do they do here? Use some kind of hypo or dirt-buster to punch the cable under the street? Then, do they tunnel across our yard? We’ll probably never know, unless they happen to make lots of noise that will prompt us to investigate.

Dinner: Frittata with mushrooms and grilled onion, corn muffins, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: nothing, thanks to Internet inavailability.

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.