A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 117

Some innocents abroad.

Monday, July 20

The cable guy from Optimum just came and, after looking around in the house and in the basement, he announced that the cable from the street to our house was old and inoperative. So, he says, he’ll arrange for a crew to come in over the next few days and install a new cable, linking to some magic box, then going under the street, and finally over to our house. Then next week another guy will come with the modem and router and, presto chango, we should have better Internet connection. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, it is hard to do much of anything online. Provided I rise early enough, I can check my e-mail and read the paper. Emily seems able to do her Times puzzles on her Android phone. But by 10 a.m. or thereabouts, my Internet connection is kaput. Lately, it seems to work again around 7 p.m.—who can say why. Is it just a reflection of how many people are on their phones at a given moment? Is it related to the weather…or the number of trees between us and the cell-phone towers? Somebody knows, but not me.

I take turns reading a bit of Jane Eyre and then a bit of Innocents Abroad, both downloaded from Project Gutenberg. Both are enormously long—I thought I had read Jane Eyre before, but I don’t remember its being such a tome. Mark Twain says numerous racist things about the Portuguese—and I’m only on page 145. Probably typical of American thinking circa 1869. Twain hailed from the slave state of Missouri and later resided in Connecticut. Perhaps the statues of him should be pulled down.

Tonight’s dinner: a Greek salad with feta cheese and olives, and the remainder of the chicken salad.

Entertainment: Assuming we can connect, old episodes of Rebus on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 115

The beach scene at Three Mile Harbor.

Thursday, July 16

It’s very difficult to establish any Internet connection today using our Verizon mobile hotspot. So I have set up an appointment with Optimum to come and install a modem and router on Monday. Then with their cable connection, our Internet and email links should be more secure. Fingers crossed.

Dinner: the Latin stew known as picadillo, a little leftover cold noodles with sesame sauce, and lettuce and cucumber salad.

Entertainment: concluding episodes of The Twelve.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 113

The storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Tuesday, July 14

On this Bastille Day, one can make good use of lockdown time by reading historian Robert Darnton’s penetrating essay on the French Revolution, provided via The New York Review of Books. Consider these words, suddenly more apt than ever: “We take the world as it comes and cannot imagine it organized differently, unless we have experienced moments when things fall apart.” In such periods, engulfed in chaos, we face “seemingly limitless possibilities, both for good and for evil, for raising a utopia and for falling back into tyranny.”

This seems like such a moment, and we can now reimagine American society—but do we have the will and material resources to reconstruct it? Out of the chaos of Trumpian ignorance (‘shine a light in the body”) and dysfunction, a new society can be born. But first, as last night’s dreams inform me, we will have to confront a wasteland of vacant storefronts, abandoned cities, overstocked graveyards, and a disintegrating economy. Mad Max-land in living color.

Darnton also warns us of a possible danger. Along with its inspiring slogans and a will to recreate everything, including not only government and social relations but also time and space (in France, there was a reimagined calendar, new names for streets and buildings, and the sudden adoption of the more rational metric system), “the Revolution unleashed a new force, nationalism, which would mobilize millions and topple governments for the next two hundred years.”

Nationalism, fanatical xenophobia that seeks to rid a land of “impure blood,” remains the potentially most destructive impulse experienced by humankind. Republicans will certainly seek to stir that hornets’ nest in the coming months, in the service of MAGA man and his plutocratic backers. We’re likely to experience a scenario that not even the most imaginative of science-fiction writers would be able to conjure.

Right here and now, we’re imagining yet another Peapod delivery, scheduled for between 3 and 5 p.m. It’s like waiting for a sleigh-load brought by a forgetful or very inefficient Santa: You might get that bike you asked for, maybe even two bikes, but he could easily omit the pants you’ll need if you’re going outside. You have to do a little planning ahead before you can place an order—but once the order comes, those plans may have to be abandoned and new ones made. Yes, bread crumbs but no mushrooms; sure, here’s the pasta but no Parmesan to go with it. What dreams may come?

Dinner: spaghetti with fried eggs and coleslaw.

Entertainment: three episodes of Netflix’ Belgian courtroom drama The Twelve.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 112

CCTV: The All-Seeing Eye is watching you.

Sunday, July 12

“The common man is ruled by the expert, certainly. He obeys the persuasive power of the propagandist in his eating, drinking, sanitary, and even sexual habits, in the clothes he wears and the entertainments he attends, in his attitude towards his fellow men and towards God. But at the heart of obedience there is the desire for revolt. There are few things the common man…desires more than to see the expert utterly discomfited….they applaud the expert’s occasional collapse as they are delighted when a top-hatted man slips on a banana skin.”

—Julian Symons, The Colour of Murder

So much for mask-wearing, know-it-all epidemiologists and lockdown-prone mayors! Yea for Trump and all freedom-loving true Americans!

Here, then, is the problem with the assessment that an appeal to reason can defeat MAGA man. New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently suggested that Biden’s bumper sticker should be: “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.” This “science,” however, is just what stands behind the blundering weather report that leaves you soaking wet on a supposedly sunny day. Then there’s the constantly shifting advice on diet—drinking alcohol is bad for you, but a bit of red wine is good for your circulation. Be sure to eat fish, which is good for your heart—unless that fish contains mercury! 

Radiation can cause cancer—so let’s have another X-ray of your teeth, your back, or maybe that sprained ankle. 

And—perhaps we should get a second opinion; the more expertise the better.

It’s no wonder that the public is skeptical of experts, whether they represent medical wisdom, computer mastery, or even military know-how. It was, after all, Colin Powell and George W. Bush’s team of “weapons of mass destruction” discoverers that sent us into a catastrophic war in Iraq—as Trump never tires of reminding us. Trump has his own teams of experts—and he frequently takes issue with them and calls them names. One minute Jeff Sessions is a fantastic pick for Attorney General, the next minute he’s a no-good coward and traitor.

Today’s Times brings a story of yet another bit of expertise that the public mistrusts. A wealthy tech executive named Chris Larsen is spending his own money to install a private network of CCTV cameras around the city of San Francisco.

These cameras are meant to deter the spate of petty crimes, especially robberies, that are taking place there. But Larsen’s CCTV isn’t under the control of government or the city police. Instead, neighborhood watch groups are in charge. “Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition,” says the article.

But wait a minute: Isn’t this Larsen guy representative of the wise-guy Silicon Valley types who are turning Baghdad by the Bay into a high-priced bedroom suburb peopled by snotty tech wonks? Google’s mega fleet of private shuttle buses, a soaring cost of living, and an end to many of the San Francisco quirks so beloved by long-time natives—isn’t that what he represents?

Who elected Larsen? Who elected these neighborhood watch committees?

And why is my smart phone so plagued with problems. Experts, phooey!

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

Entertainment: Two episodes of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 111

A school in Cuba: Che, not Ivanhoe

Thursday, July 9

The debate over public school reopening seems to be missing one thing: Kids really do learn a lot on their own. 

Maybe what they learn won’t comply with the official requirements, but kids will continue to learn stuff—and be interested in learning—without any bullying from credentialed teachers or school-board commisars. They get information from their friends. They learn everything from self-discipline to cooking and cleanliness from their parents. If parents are bad role models…well there’s little schools can do to overcome that. 

Home-schooled kids “miss out on learning gains in reading and math relative to in-class instruction,” says Vox’s Matthew Yglesias.

Baloney. They miss out on bullying, boredom, snobbery, and enforced conformism.

My own experience probably demonstrates little more than personal frustration. Nevertheless, I must say that I already knew how to read when I went to first grade. They gave me a little, unofficial test, and at age 6, I could read virtually everything in the sixth-grade reader; the only word I didn’t know was “Maria.”

But they decided I shouldn’t “skip” any grades. Consequently, for several years I sat and listened as other students attempted to read out loud, stumbling over words or just sitting for lengthy, agonizing periods of silence.

Did this benefit me or other already-advanced kids? I was supposed to gain some maturity or socialization from being around others my age—but I remained hugely immature and shy.

Up until college, it was much the same. In high school, I learned a lot of math and a little biology—most of which I’ve long ago forgotten. The history classes were almost all taught by football coaches—it seems they needed lots of those. I remember one coach reading the textbook aloud to us—that was his idea of a lecture. As he read, students misbehaved, throwing spitballs or wads of chewing gum at each other. Others dawdled, drawing airplanes with firing machine guns rather than taking notes. Some kids slept.

Another memory is of a study hall, presided over by yet another football coach. He amused himself by digging in his ears with his keys. Then, he’d carefully examine whatever he had managed to remove. Occasionally, he’d pipe up and utter some word of criticism at a perceived miscreant. 

There was compulsory attendance at pep rallies held in the gym. Memphis Central High School’s fight song was performed to the tune of “On Wisconsin”—or was it the Notre Dame Victory March? I guess there were no original melodies in the hometown of Elvis.

Then there was ROTC, or Rot-C as we called the paramilitary marching around while wearing army-surplus duds and toting disabled, WWII-era rifles. What did we learn there? Obedience? That was already a theme in almost all other classes.

There was really only one class I liked—senior English. There, we read the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. (And, famously, 40% of the students at my school were Jewish.) I should note that Ivanhoe did have virtues—it celebrated the Che Guevara-like Robin Hood.

Mrs. Davies, the English teacher, made it known that she disapproved of a group of students who, on their own, were reading J.D. Salinger and admiring Bob Dylan. Today, both figures are on the approved list, I gather. Other authors and popular musicians have to bear the load of official disapproval. They cry all the way to the bank.

Dinner: leftover grilled vegetables, Capriccio salad.

Entertainment: Our faulty Internet connection won’t link to Britbox, so two episodes of Netflix’ The Stranger.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 110

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansu Hill monument near Pyongyang.

Wednesday, July 8

Who will be memorialized in Trump’s “National Garden of American Heroes”? And even more importantly, just how big and prominent will Trump’s statue of himself be?

Last Friday, Trump issued an executive order concerning his planned memorial park, noting that there will be statues of several presidents and others including Davy Crockett, Amelia Earhart, Billy Graham, Harriet Tubman and Orville and Wilbur Wright. Oh, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Except for Scalia and maybe Tubman, it’s the kind of list that could have been put together for a junior-high term paper on the basis of 1950s television shows, especially those of Walt Disney.

I assume the statue of Orange Man will be executed by a Russian sculptor, surely the same guy who will be doing one of Putin. Or what about a North Korean artist? They understand what’s wanted.

But the problem with statues is they can be smashed or removed—and they invite graffiti and pigeon poop. In Russia, as the Berlin Wall fell, a statue of secret police boss Feliks Dzerzhinsky was dashed to the ground alongside a pink granite statue of Stalin, his face smashed by hammer blows. There are probably warehouses filled with such East Bloc relics, from the Albanian leader Enver Hoxha to the Romanian Nicolae Ceaușescu. (Many of Russia’s are now back in Moscow’s not-altogether-reverent 24-hectare Muzeon Park of Arts, the world’s largest open-air sculpture park.)

I would expect Trump’s park to include likenesses of Jared and Ivanka. And, hey, what about this: product placement! Ivanka could be carrying her $1,540 Max Mara handbag. Jared could have on Ermenegildo Zegna shoes and a Hermes tie. All proceeds could go to charity—such as the Trump Foundation!

And wasn’t this all brought about by the removal of statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest? Those marble guys are looking for new homes—and what could be better than MAGA park?

Dinner: hamburgers, grilled eggplant, onion, and bell peppers, and corn on the cob.

Entertainment: more episodes of the Britbox thriller The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 109

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Monday, July 6

I just returned from taking the car to the Subaru dealer. It’s due for an oil change and NY State Inspection, and I received a letter from Subaru headquarters of a parts recall: It seems the fuel pump must be replaced. 

Two sentences worthy of General Jack D. Ripper inform me that  “your vehicle may be equipped with a low-pressure fuel pump assembled with an impeller that may become deformed. Over time, the impeller may become deformed enough to interfere with the body of the fuel pump, potentially causing the low-pressure fuel pump to become inoperative.”

In other words, terminate the old fuel pump…”terminate with extreme prejudice.”

So I left my car there for fixin’ and drove back in a loaner Subaru Forester. The replacement continues the manufacturer’s hyperactive tendency toward feature creep—this one has a push button ignition that takes some getting used to. The radio has a mind of its own. To turn it off, it’s not enough to press the on-off button. You have to open the driver’s side door.

The dealership, meanwhile, surprised me by seeming quite pandemic-ready. Everyone had face masks. I was instructed to wait outside until there were fewer customers waiting inside. There was plenty of social distancing complete with boxes marked on the floor indicating just where customers should stand. They ensured me that the loaner had been disinfected and that my car will be disinfected before they return it. I needn’t pick up my car until tomorrow—it was a one-and-a-half hour drive over to Riverhead—at which time I can return the loaner. 

But I can’t keep the loaner beyond 48 hours and must return it with the same amount of gasoline it had when I took possession. Hey, will the budget brand Coastal gas be OK? You bet.

On the way back home, I stopped at the Water Mill farm stand we have regularly visited over the years. They had plenty of everything—I got four ears of corn plus some sugar-snap peas. The weeks have coasted past so quickly that I hardly expected to see summer produce there. Again, both customers and workers had face masks. And there was lots of Plexiglas dividing cashiers from customers. The Plexiglas makers must be raking in the dough.

Tonight’s dinner: leftover chicken paprikash, pasta, and a lettuce, cucumber, and radish salad.

Entertainment: We’ve had severe troubles connecting to the Internet over the past few days, probably due to the large number of people out here, jamming up the Wi-Fi space. We finally watched the last few minutes of season three of Broadchurch on Sunday night. We’ll have to see how it goes tonight—there may be nothing doing.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 108

Spooky times.

Friday, July 3

Independent journalist I.F. Stone called them “the Haunted Fifties.” True enough, the decade at the middle of the 20th century was haunted by the bruising previous eras of The Great Depression and World War II.  The 1950s, of course, were a time when Americans longed for calm, for prosperity, and to get back to something like “normalcy.” By public acclamation, then, the ‘50s were desired to be a transitional time.

Stone saw little to be calm about. To him, the specter of nuclear annihilation loomed over everything. “How free are men who can be blown off the map at any moment without their permission?” he asked.

Ours is surely another transitional time. Call it, then, the Haunted 2020s.

If the presidential polls are to be believed, a considerable majority of Americans want to get back to calmer times—free of Trumpian name-calling and vacuity, released from the threat of death by pandemic or by police brutality. A CNN poll shows Biden leading trump by 55% to 41%.

If Trump called out to “Make America Great Again,” surely Biden’s appeal is merely to “Make America Calm Again.”

New York Times writer Thomas Friedman recently suggested that Biden’s bumper sticker should be: “Respect science, respect nature, respect each other.”

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—with a bit of Teddy Roosevelt-like nature worship and Jonas Salk-like respecting of science. If that’s not true conservatism, I don’t know what it is.

Unfortunately, neither science nor nature is likely to allow us to go backwards. We face a future of more coronaviruses, rising ethnic strife, and an unwillingness by police to loosen their grip on local budgets and/or brute power.

The haunting of the 2020s may lead to a haunting of the remainder of the 21st century.

I believe that Trump would lose an election—so therefore he’s unlikely to allow one to happen. He may at last recognize the existence of the pandemic…when it can benefit him. The Department of Homeland security is likely to say that, under the current infectious conditions, no election can take place. Besides, mail-in ballots or electronic voting only lead to election fraud. We had better put off any kind of balloting.

Meanwhile, Bill Barr might announce that his department has found the Democrats in general and Joe Biden in particular are engaged in a monstrous, dark conspiracy to rig the voting. Biden will be indicted. A show trial will proceed, followed by large-scale incarceration.

Who would stop it? The beleaguered and generally pissed-off police? Why would they? Trump is on their side.

Dinner: eggplant with tomato sauce and parmesan, potato salad, and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from season three of Broadchurch.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 107

Wednesday, July 1

More frightening stats that have come to my attention: 

The number of new cases in the United States has shot up by 80 percent in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database.

More than 48,000 coronavirus cases were announced across the United States on Tuesday, the most of any day of the pandemic. Officials in eight states—Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas—also announced single-day highs.

New York added visiting citizens from eight states—California, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee—to a must-quarantine list that already included Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.

New Jersey and Connecticut are advising travelers from the 16 states to quarantine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. is now having 40,000 new cases appear each day, and that that number could go up to 100,000 per day.

He also believes that many anti-vaccine Americans could refuse to get inoculated if and when a vaccine is made available. Seven out of ten citizens, however, say that they will get inoculated if the vaccine is free and available to everyone.

If, as the maps seem to indicate, the bulk of the new cases are appearing in so-called red states, where anti-science sentiment is the most intense, there’s a temptation to think that such people deserve what they are getting. But, it’s important that everyone recognize that we’re all in this together—that like it or not, this thing has to be stamped out everywhere or it will just keep reoccurring everywhere. 

Our next Peapod delivery is scheduled for between 5:33 and 7:33. Why this exactitude? Perhaps Peapod is a subsidiary of the Pentagon. Maybe, I think, the delivery guys will show up wearing military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons. 

Instead, it’s just the usual mystifying hit-and-miss delivery. We still can’t get various items, such as charcoal, and even stuff they had before, such as fresh spinach, is now said to be out-of-stock. Go figure.

Dinner: hot dogs, sauerkraut, and American Picnic Potato Salad, courtesy of the Silver Palate Cookbook.

Entertainment: Britbox’ very odd The Seven Dials Mystery.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 106

Around Jack’s Coffee, precautions remain ongoing.

Tuesday, June 30

States that had eased off of the lockdown are reimposing restrictions. In the U.S., the pandemic appears to be reasserting itself, and this has us pondering what the months ahead hold. 

On June 29, Suffolk County reported its first 24-hour period without a COVID-19 death since June 12.

Meanwhile, there were 46 new reported cases in Manhattan on June 27, and a total of 26,707 cases in that borough during the pandemic. A pilot program has only now gotten underway, selling face masks and hand sanitizer from vending machines in subway stations. So the end is not in sight.

We figure that we’ll probably hang on in East Hampton until the fall at least. Perhaps in September, we’ll go back to the city, at least to pick up more clothing, perhaps the computer printer, and kitchen equipment and spices. Then after a few days, we could well turn around and come back here.

There’s been talk for a while of a second wave of COVID-19. No one knows anything, but that second wave might come in the fall or winter.

Deep winter months out here—and I mean January through March—can be a tad bleak. Would we really want to be here, especially if it’s a harsh winter? But there’s really no place else for us to go…

As an adult, I’ve never before lived through a crisis at all like this. It’s so open-ended, so unclear when there might be any resolution. Our national expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, still maintains that there will be a vaccine by the end of the year. But even if that’s true, just how will it be administered? Who will get first dibs? For the time being, everything is up for grabs.

I might have died in the mid-1950s polio epidemic that claimed my sister, but I didn’t. I was only a child, and had little sense of the passage of time. But in my recollection, the vaccines that appeared within a few years meant an end to the crisis…of which I was mostly unaware anyway.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Vietnam War seemed to go on and on, year after year. Always more escalation, no real resolution in sight. More and more deaths. But neither I nor anyone I knew very well was directly involved. Other political crises—Watergate for instance—came to a head after some months and then ended without violence. 

The days after 9-11 could have included more terrorist events—but they didn’t. Instead, the Bush Administration used the attacks to generate wars in other parts of the world. And those went on and on—the Afghanistan conflict is still continuing. But again, I’ve never been directly affected.

So as I am writing this, I realize that I have lived through other open-ended, slow-to-be-resolved crises—I simply wasn’t very affected personally. Yes, the periods were worrisome, frustrating, even maddening. But I never imagined that I would die as a result. 

This time is pretty different in that regard: I went out this morning to buy more coffee, and I was anxious the whole time I spent in Jack’s Coffee store. Was I standing too close to others? Were they too close to me? I hate the masks—you can’t make yourself understood, nor can you breathe very well. But get used to them. We’ll probably have to wear masks for a long time to come.

Dinner: leftover spaghetti with meatballs and a lettuce salad.

Entertainment: Final episodes of Alias Grace.