Angst in the Time of Corona
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 1
3/15/20 Starting Journal of the Plague Year on the Ides of March. Hmm. Today's stats: USA infected 2805/59 deaths Denmark (my second home) 827 infected/1 death NYS 613 infected/up to 800 later in day NYC 269/ 1 death up to 5 later in day In a dream last night I saw the word "S H I T T Y" emblazoned across the sky. I've been reading about the Trojan War recently, and "shitty" looks to me like "Hittite," the Trojan's closest allies. Was this a cry for help from the besieged Trojans, only it came out "SHITTY"? Phone calls from the minute I wake up. C complains about the Congressional bill about paid sick leave that once again protects mega-institutions and leaves out businesses under 100 employees--her business. She asks if I'm supporting my small business connections--my physiotherapist, my trainer. I'll pay Jose my trainer whether I see him or not, Medicare won't pay the physiotherapist. She weeps when she says that she always used to think of "her country" as the greatest in the world; now in her mind it's not among the top 50. My own take is that there's always been a big--and perceived-- difference between the American people and American government. Europeans always noted the difference and said so: liked Americans, hated the gov't. Americans won't be singing out the window like the Italians, but will they be kind, generous, caring for each other? I check myself for symptoms. Even if I'm not sick, my body's changed in the last week because of change of habits, rhythms. Not going to the Metro coffee shop each morning means that I don't eat the same food, don't get the same morning constitutional, don't get nurtured by the same greetings from waitresses. Not going to see friends, limiting shopping or taking breaks from writing by going outside or to gym--all have a physical effect. My body's confused. It feels vaguely unhealthy, logy, halfway underwater. Tension. Fear. Duh. Kafka thought that the best place to write would be prison where they slipped food under his door twice a day. De Sade got a lot of work done in prison, Casanova too, but I have my doubts. Freedom is just as important as solitude, and it's hard to feel free when a giant boulder's rolling down the hillside at you. In Whole Foods the young sales staff is cheery, upbeat, cute. Lots of shoppers with anxiety in their eyes--what can I buy that will last forever? Kids oblivious, but maybe their haste reflects their parents' tension. The frozen foods shelf and much of packaged meat and dairy sections are empty, but that may be because it's Sunday. One of the young women at the check out counter says, "It's definitely not an ordinary Sunday!" and then smiles, catching herself. For a moment she forgot. Nature outside my window seems incredibly stupid. The cherry tree is budding, crocuses, tulips, daffodils popping out of the ground-- don't they know that something terrifying is going on? I envy their ignorance and imperviousness, but then Nature hasn't had it easy in the last 20 years either. The human organism wants to be happy; it'll do anything to avoid bad news. So there were major partiers in the bars of NYC and Hoboken last night. Understandable, and the odds are probably in their favor. But now two friends of mine are under quarantine, friends of friends have symptoms. The degrees of separation keep diminishing, and fast. My son B. calls to say that NYC school will close tomorrow, that he fears the city will be in chaos, and that I should get out. Two calls from Denmark saying the same thing. Call from dear friend in LI inviting me to stay with her. Lone and Dennis have also said that I can stay with them in Peekskill. If you're on the street in Dodge City and three or four gunslingers come toward you at the same time, maybe it's not a good idea to have a shoot-out, but to turn tail and run.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 2 3/16/20 Stats: World 167, 4000 infected/6329 deaths US 3599 infected/66 deaths Denmark 864 infected/2 deaths NYS 732 infected NYC 329 infected/5 deaths If part of the definition of childhood is helplessness, then in these terrifying times we really are kids, and need some sort of father/mother figure to represent our wish to persevere. Guiliani with all his faults did this during 9/11. Today Cuomo, NY governor, gave a strong press conference, only to have the President tweet that Cuomo should "do more." Petulant kid resenting somebody else stealing the spotlight. I pack to go for some unspecified period of time to Dennis and Lone's house upstate. If I treat it like going away for the summer to Denmark, maybe I can pull it off. But I look around my apartment, and everything shimmers with personal meaning. How can I abandon all my things? But I go, feeling guilty that I'm disrupting their lives and angry that I have to disrupt mine. I'm starting to hear stories of people doing extraordinary things. I know some of them. My friend S. in Paris isn't leaving town, even though she has a daughter with a big house in the country. She works with African asylum-seekers, boys floating around Paris streets, and she feels she can't abandon them. I hear that my goddaughter F. wants to volunteer to make deliveries to isolated older people in the city. There will be more stories of altruism, and stories of greed, selfishness, evil. My daughter, a naturopathic doctor in New Mexico, is preparing for virus. So far nobody has it in her town. She says that she was given two test-kits, medical people in town pooled the kits and gave them to hospital. Like all the experts in the media, she talks about being unprepared. In WWII, automobile industry converted to making airplanes in a matter of weeks. Isn't it obvious that the federal government has to demand of air conditioner and refrigerator manufacturers that they make ventilators and respirators? Trump's quote of the day to a meeting of governors: "Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment--try getting it yourselves." Even as stock market went down 3000 points today, it is still worst example of disparity between rich and poor. Owners of equities could at least sell and stockpile cash; millions of people won't get paychecks this week. Watched "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" tonight. It wasn't enough to keep away the occasional feeling that the virus was outside the window. But Rogers' insistence on "neighborliness" may be the only thing to keep us from cracking up. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 3 3/17/20 Stats: World 179,700/7313 US 4482/86 DK 960/4 NYS 950/9 later-- over 1500: most infected state in nation. NYC 463/7 One alarming bit in the news: a flood of first-time gun buyers. Talking heads today seem to emphasize that virus probably isn't seasonal--it is spreading in hot, humid South-East Asian countries. Lassitude sets in. You mean to do something but can't quite get yourself to do it. You don't really decide not to do it, it just ends up not being done. Like doing things underwater or in slow motion. You don't even kick yourself that hard for not doing it; it takes too much energy. Among other metaphors, this feels like attending a wake or shiva. People talk about the deceased, the conversation wanders for a while into more pleasant territory-- then a pause and the real subject is back. The one consoling fact is that it's also easier to love the people you love. You realize with great clarity that you love the neighbor whom you've only had friendly chats with for years, the work-people in your apartment building, friends from 50 years ago whom you haven't seen for decades-- and you love them all in a very direct, uncomplicated way. You find that you even love things that you had no idea you loved. Before I left the city, I was in an Uber driving up Madison Avenue. From 34th Street to 96th street it hadn't felt this peaceful in a few decades. I don't like Madison Avenue--it's snooty, boring, unchanging. But not that night. It was a balmy evening, and I rode with the window down. I appreciated the hard richness of the street, the stone/glass beauty, the perfectly-lit shop windows, the absolute belief in the dream of stability and eternal wealth. I imagined that after all the people die--as they do in Hamlet--Fortinbras, the leader of a more humane nation, comes into the empty city. He's swept away by the hard beauty of Madison Avenue but also senses that the people who built it could cut your throat as easily as shake your hand. A story of generosity: a friend who runs a marketing agency says her business dropped 80% overnight. She lives in a house in the Hamptons at a $4000+ monthly rent. She emailed the owner of the place, asking if she could defer half the rent for 6 months and give the remaining money to the free-lancers who make up the bulk of her staff. "Any way I can help," the owner replied. In his first term Obama used the word "sacrifice" a good deal. The recession was on, it wasn't clear how fast things would recover, and he talked about the need for everyone to sacrifice. He hardly used the word in his second term--not only because the country was more prosperous, but because he was angry and discouraged. Religious people have always emphasized sacrifice, if only to up their chances of getting to heaven. People's willingness to sacrifice will probably determine a lot of the next phase of history. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 4 3/18 World 203,995/8141 US 6207/107 DK 1091/4 NYS 1653/12 later in day: 2382/16 (one-third of all cases in US; Cuomo says it is due to improved testing) NYC 814/10 later in day: 1871 infected Among other dire European news: a woman in Milano died yesterday, but no cemetery was willing to bury her body. The first indication of something like descriptions of the Black Plague. Since this started, my body's become not just a vulnerable fortress but a kind of enemy. If I get sick, it won't be my fault or bad luck, lack of caution or a single blunder, it'll be my body betraying me. These days we're not even good friends. I'm suspicious, distrustful of it. I study every sniffle, every moment of breath catching in my chest, sneeze, sign of fatigue. Though I'm trying to be nice to my body-- to keep it warm, furnish it with fresh air and sunlight and gentle exercise, feed it vitamins, expand the lungs with qigong breathing-- I'm sneakily trying to make a deal with it: if I treat you right, don't kill me. I'm constantly scrutinizing, judging, resenting it for not being younger, thinner, stronger. I had a mother and an aunt who did this to me as a little kid, so I know the routine; but there's an expression of doubt in other people's faces that makes me wonder if they too haven't lost faith in their bodies--a very strange place to be. I called priceline today to try to cancel a flight I'd booked a few weeks ago. They said that the callback time was 42 hours. A Parisian friend tells me that she can't travel out of her arrondisement without a permit, police are everywhere, there's no traveling anywhere without permit. Europe was like this in Middle Ages, Eastern Europe into the 19th century. It's my grandson's M.'s 5th birthday today. No party of course, but plenty of presents, which seems to be his main interest. Spoke to him on skype: no signs of any dark clouds over his head. But what will it be like for him to grow up with little or no recollection of this terrible time, but overshadowed by it in a hundred ways that we can't even imagine at this point? He's old enough and secure enough to have a calm, trusting disposition, but if being close to other people is identified with danger, and the infection is "the invisible worm that flies in the night"--invisible but omnipresent-- what is it going to do to the sense of basic trust that seems so solid in him now? JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 5 3/19/20 World 226,756/9271 US 9176/156 DK 1204/6 France (for my god daughter Mina) 9134/264 NYS 4152/ later in day 5298/31 NYC 2959/11 later in day 3615/22 In the past few days two of Tom Lehrer's songs --"I Got it from Agnes" and "We'll All Go Together When We Go"--have gone viral (Lehrer himself couldn't have thought up a better double-entendre). They both sound like they were written expressly for the plague year. It's hard to believe, but Lehrer is 92 now, apparently alive and hopefully virus-free. I remember the first time I heard his songs. I was in 10th grade, was over at Billy Wachsburger's house. His mother had given us a box of apricot jam-filled rugelach pastries, and we sat scarfing them down and listening to the 10" lp with a cover drawing of Lehrer as the Devil. The songs were so clever, catchy, sophisticated! "Fight Fiercely, Harvard." "The Old Dope Peddler selling powdered happiness." "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.""Be Prepared" (about pederasty in the Boy Scouts). For a while his style of urban cynicism got lost when Beat romanticism came in, but it always was part of the New York attitude--sharp-tongued, no bullshit irony, chuckling as the hangman tightens the noose. He's quoted on Wikipedia as saying: "If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while." https://www.youtube.com/results… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frAEmhqdLFs It feels like we've begun to live like people in Italian or Greek hill towns--sitting around together, not doing much of anything, shmoozing, gabbing to friends and relatives over a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Thanks to electronics, we all have our own individual hill towns where we sit and talk to people all day; the electronic towns overlap, but they're also somewhat private. Most animals--and people in hill towns--spend a lot of time just sitting. These days sitting doesn't seem like such an aimless activity. More deaths in Italy than in China. No new reported deaths in China. Thus far, the media haven't been helpful in analyzing the data. Here's an article that addresses the high rate of death in Italy. https://medium.com/…/coronavirus-why-its-so-deadly-in-italy… Until now there's been a subset of people with such strong wills or powers of denial that they've been able to keep acknowledgement of the virus at arm's length. They don't exactly deny its existence; they just choose not to take it seriously. But now it seems to be getting to them. They're starting to be irritable, have stomach aches, bad dreams, nasty moods. Their detachment from themselves has an almost comic charm. Couldn't decide whether to read books with plagues in them--Decameron, Journal of the Plague Year, The Plague--or stay with reading about the Trojan War. But as Barry Strauss, the classical historian whom I'm reading reminds me, there was a nine-day epidemic in the Greek camp that sounds distressingly familiar: "It started with the mules and dogs, then it spread to the men. Infection followed a trajectory like that of anthrax, plague, SARS, avian flu, and the many other diseases spread from animals to human, but no specific illness can be identified from Homer's description. It is enough to know that the beach at Troy was crowded with funeral pyres."
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 6 3/20/20 World 253,775/10524 later in day 272,863/11405 USA 14271/206 later in day 18459/235 DK 1306/9 France 10995/372 NYS 7102 later in day 8299/38 NYC 4408 later in day 5151/29 I wake up with the virus. Short of breath, woozy, sinking into a morass of absolute isolation. Outside the window everything is dense fog; the whole world has the virus. Only very gradually do I start to hear sounds, feel familiar muscle aches, usual itches. Blood pumps through my body, urging me to get out of bed no matter how sure I am that I'm dying. Like an arthritic--or better, like a colt or calf--I start to move my limbs unsteadily. Now other parts of my brain are waking up too. I feel an actual dose of youth, of optimism! Wow, I'm not dead! I start thinking of my kids. I'll get another chance to see them, hear their voices. In a little while, other, more complicated feelings will set in, but for now there's a small moment of pure joy: I managed to crawl out of the hole one more day. It gets closer. Mother of a good friend of my son B is in hospital ICU in the city. No one has any idea how she got it. B and his fiancee are finally working at home. On phone he reprimands Lone for going to eye doctor yesterday for non-essential examination. "It's everywhere," he says. "An invisible zombie invasion." We've reached the point when narcissism has turned into sadism. When you go out partying, fairly sure that you won't get terribly sick and couldn't care less about being a carrier, then you're committing a crime. A kind of reptilian state where one narrows one's eyes to slits and sneezes on one's neighbor, it is far more reprehensible than assassination, which at least has a profit or ideological motive. The tendency of some Americans to revel in this reptilian state will bring about martial law, as it already has in other parts of the world. Drove down to the Hudson River today to take a walk. Terrified all the way. Everybody careful to avoid each other, etc. etc., but nature itself felt ominous. Dark, brooding hills across the river. Could imagine the Lenapes looking at those hills with respect, awe, and plenty of fear. Watched both the Danish Prime Minister and the US President on internet today. Mette Fredriksen looked like a strict but kindly sixth grade teacher. To a child-questioner she said that "we will see the worst in human experience--death--but also the best: community, solidarity." The President picked a fight with a reporter, slandered the Obama health system, and talked about how the American economy would be bigger and better... after thousands of people die. One wanted to strangle him and get on with the business of protecting and helping fellow humans. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 7 3/21/20 World 286,798/11,947 US 19,459/263 France 12612/450 DK 1335/9 NYS 8516/ later in day 10,000+ NYC 6211/48 later in day 8115/60 NYC now the epicenter of the pandemic in US. State bracing for hospital overflow, will fine people violating lockdown rules. Shortages of masks, gowns, ventilators. Circumstances not quite in panic mode but may be getting closer. Got an email from my building management that if someone in the building staff comes down with virus, they'll keep the rest of the staff home, which will put the building in lockdown mode. Management will issue passes and fobs for residents to get in and out via service entrances. This must be happening in thousands of buildings--how will they manage? Governor Cuomo on media appears manly, solid, realistic. One would like some softness in his approach as well. Doctors must feel that they're finally doing what they signed up to do. Before this happened, they must often have felt like nursemaids to hypochondriacs, but now they're on the front lines. My daughter, a naturopathic doctor in New Mexico, texts: "I just finished the longest week of my life. Now I'm getting into the bathtub." Sounds tired but fulfilled. A French artist friend posts that he objects to calling this pandemic a war. He sees it as a conflict between selfishness and altruism. That's surely true. But the fear that we're living under every second, the need to group together, the sense that there are already shortages and will be more--even my camping out in my ex-wife's house like a Jew fleeing the Nazis--aren't these all aspects of war? Yet another way to look at the experience we're going through is that it's like being under luxurious house-arrest. Ages ago in El Escorial, the huge castle-complex outside Madrid, I saw a room where a deposed king or pretender to the throne was under house arrest. He'd paced back and forth on the room's diagonal so many times that he'd worn a trench in the floor. I spent time in the backyard today doing the same thing--pacing--stopping to look at miniature daffodils and irises, but mostly pacing. On phone today for hours and hours. Felt more than a little compulsive, as if the sound of a loved one's voice was oxygen. Today, Saturday, has been a little more peaceful than usual because the stock market hasn't been crashing around me. People keep saying how clean the air is now that there's reduced traffic and no jet planes overhead. If one can forget the virus for a few moments, the silence and peacefulness are wonderful. I got a flicker of a sense of how it was before the internet invaded our lives and made us jumpy, distracted, constantly drawn away from our own thoughts. We sang pop tunes tonight. Dennis sight-read and played piano; Lone and I tried to stretch our voices into the songs. Part of it was to test our lungs. My friend J. told me that he walked up and down six flights of stairs today to make sure that he still had good lung capacity. But singing together wasn't just to check if we were still breathing. There was a sense of family, but more than that, I got pleasure in occasionally hitting three or four right notes, almost making something shapely and melodic.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 8 3/22/20 World 320,571/13,755 US 26,875/354 France 14,459/ 562 DK 1418/13 NYS 15000+/114 NYC 9654/63 Lots of false claims floating around-- a malaria drug that the President touted for coronavirus a few days ago still needs "extensive clinical testing" for efficacy; megadoses of vitamin C as preventive and ameliorator disputed by reputable sources. There have always been miracle cures, shortcuts, papal indulgences, etc. Understandable. It takes so much energy to be terrified that if nothing else, a miracle cure offers time to breathe a sigh of relief. Infection and death rates exponentially higher especially in World and NY. Now 5 cases in Peekskill area where I'm living. Last night my nightmares took a sexual turn. First was a combination of De Sade and Law and Order: SVU, a torture chamber run by an ominous, heavy-set, bald man like Jackie Coogan in The Addams Family; I was one of the detectives, and he was challenging me to come closer and get a look at what he was doing. In second nightmare I was with A., a beautiful woman, whom the guy in the first dream or someone like him--Satanic figure--lusted after. He cruised along by my side, looking for an opening, making small talk with me but focused on her. I had to be constantly on my guard that he didn't turn on me and attack. That's the way it feels everyday-- drop your guard and you're dead. Extra-nervous today. Took a 1/2 mg. lorazepam. The trade in that drug must be tremendous these days. There were moments today when my body and soul remembered old routines and tried to replicate them. I raked leaves in Lone's garden to clear space for spring shoots. But instead of throwing myself into it the way I ordinarily would, I was cautious, felt old, checked my breathing, took care not to get too sweaty--might catch a cold. Earlier I'd managed to glance at notes for the novel I've been working on. I couldn't look at the book at all until now. For the first time in a week watched a film and didn't think every minute of the virus. Very good Danish film, Den Skyldige (The Guilty) with virtually only one actor playing a 911 policeman dealing with a supposed kidnap. Was moving to see someone with urgent, believable problems other than a pandemic outside the window. But even attempting to return to pre-virus routines seems to take a formidable amount of courage. My friend M, a Russian living in Berlin, answers my query about what's really going with the virus in Russia. "Russia: it's really hard to say. I do believe the first infections there (and in several surrounding countries) started later than in Western Europe, and they introduced certain (light) quarantine measures for people arriving from there relatively early on. The relatively many visitors from China (tourists, agricultural workers, etc) tend to be from regions other than Hubei, arrive in the summer rather than the winter, and also stick together, with relatively little local contact. Whether any of this actually explains the low numbers I don't know, but there still seem to be fewer cases, for whatever reason. Given the state of the healthcare system and the large numbers of people dying from tuberculosis etc I wouldn't bet on this being accurate, but neither do I think there's a conspiracy to cover up huge numbers of cases. Things appear to be very similar in most of the post-Soviet countries: e.g. I was supposed to lecture in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in April; they shut their borders early on and still have few (known) cases. For Russia, this article has a map displaying the officially known cases by region: https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-51979104"
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 9 3/23/20 World 354,308/ 15,367 later in day 374,822/16,379 US 35, 481/465 later in day 52691/565 France 16. 689/ 674 DK 1568/24 NYS 20875/157 NYC 10764/99 First day with 100 deaths reported in US Today wet, dreary snow outside, no fun to walk outside even in backyard. Hard to find anything to be mildly hopeful about. New York State now 5% of confirmed cases in the world. Eighteen months seems to be the working figure; no one in his right mind thinks this will be over before then. Feeling seems to be that social distancing can return us to a place where society can start to function but with sporadic outbreaks all over. In governor's press conference, Cuomo talked about prioritizing, ranking, people when at least some people will go back to work. Young people and people who survived the virus will be first; people in my category last. Not such a fun prospect to be quarantined for 18 months. My friend J, a personal trainer, tells me on the phone what the city is like these days. He's enjoying the lack of traffic and the diminished crowds, but he runs into some dicey people in the streets--a few lost souls, but also folks up to no good. A lot of shop lifting going on. He was in a Dollar Discount store when the cashier spotted someone going out the door with stolen stuff. The cashier didn't miss a beat: he left the register, went after the guy, came back with the stuff and picked up right where he left off. J. gets around the city mostly by walking. He wears a mouthguard because that's what he uses when he does martial arts, and he says that it reminds him to keep his hands off his face. But one time when he used the subway recently, he says that he met the most heroic person he's seen since this started--a subway employee in his mid-seventies who was disinfecting the turnstiles. J. asked him why he wasn't wearing a mask; the transit guy said they'd run out of masks, but the job still needed to be done. The hardest part, says J--and here I could hear him choke up-- is with his son, who's 10. At some point his son had touched a metal surface before hugging his father, and they had to do air hugs and kisses instead of the real thing. I know what he's going through. Reminds me of a line that Robert Morley delivered in the 1950s comedy masterpiece Beat the Devil (written by Truman Capote). Morley played a petty gangster. He and his thug friends are pacing the desk of a tramp steamer in the Mediterranean, and he's encouraging them to take deep breaths of sea air: "Breathe in, boys! Every breath is a shilling in the Bank of Health!" That's how I feel when I hear my kids' voices over the phone: shilling in the Bank of Health. A friend wakes up in the middle of the night, sure that she has the virus. "Did I put the dishes in the dishwasher?" she wonders. When she decides that she did, she rests easier, and goes back to sleep People supposedly having parties all over the internet. Can they talk about anything but the virus? If I'm going to get through this, I'm going to have to talk to my body and convince it to relax in spite of itself. The talk will go something like this. "I understand that you're terrified. That's normal. But if you don't let go of the terror every once in a while, you're not going to have anything even resembling a life. I'm not bawling you out. You have a right to be anxious. But you've got to realize that I'm not your enemy, your secret destroyer; I'm just the guy who inhabits you. So for your sake and mine, ease up a little, OK?" My sister sends a list of 450 college courses available for free online. Hard to choose between Early Greek philosophy, Hamlet: The Ghost, or History of American Capitalism. As usual I'm overwhelmed by a sense of what I don't know, now supplemented by wondering whether I have time to learn it. https://www.syracuse.com/…/pass-coronavirus-quarantine-time… And then there's this ominous, unreported little bit mentioned in POLITICO: "The Justice Department has quietly asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies."
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 10 3/24/20 World 384,313/16,591 US 46,158/583 France 19,856/860 Denmark 1699/24 NYS 25,665/210 NYC 15,000/131 NYS 7% of cases in world; doubling every three days, peak expected in two weeks. Police in city enforcing social distancing. Got up at 6 am today to go to supermarket: old people's shopping time 6-7:30. (Offends me deeply because I know that I'm only 27.) But last night I did make a list for my son of where to find important stuff in case of... has everyone done this? Still dark outside when we get in the car. My body is alert and eager because it thinks we're going fishing: familiar moment of excitement making thermoses of coffee, then driving with my father or my kids on empty Long Island roads, the salt-smelling docks at Jones Beach or Port of Egypt, a gang of grumpy but excited men with rods and equipment like soldiers getting ready for a morning battle. Then the diesel smell of the boat motors, the boat purring away from the dock, sun spilling light over morning-still water. When we arrive at the shopping center, Lone and Dennis point out the now-closed coffee shop and gym--their pre-virus morning activities. Inside the giant supermarket it's quiet and pretty empty, supplies on the shelves dwindling but enough left to stock up on most things. Has a melancholy air. Customers are intent, close-mouthed; some a little touchy; nobody looks too long at anybody else. The staff tries its best to be upbeat. Some people have masks and gloves; most don't. Everybody's stocking up for a few weeks; many people have two full carts. When we come out into the air, it's a crisp, technicolor day. When we get home, we're sleepy but feel that we've accomplished something; I'll take a nap, work out, shower, try to start the day again. But my body hasn't accepted that things aren't normal, and that we're not going fishing! Talking to my friend C. in Denmark. Though she's a semi-invalid, indoors most of the time, what she misses is visitors, their physical presence. I tried to think of what I miss most. Even though as a writer I'm home most of day, what I miss is movement--getting up and going outside, taking a break and getting an ice cream, a walk in the park, meeting friends for dinner. I move around much more than I'm aware of. Maybe it's not even movement that I miss; it's the freedom of knowing that I can move if I want to. In Denmark everything is about national sense of community--group singing twice a day, new crisis centers to deal with domestic violence (anxiety caused by fear of the virus?), hotlines for depression and anxiety, everything set up by the national government. All under the hand of the Prime Minister, who seems to be universally admired. All parties in parliament united behind her. Virtually the only good news in US is individual acts of kindness, selflessness-- or groups within civil society doing community work. No national sense of solidarity, only singular occasions of empathy or commitment to saving lives. Lone has always said that the basic political philosophy in the US is anarchy. She would appear to be right. The President and other Republicans said truly scary things today. They want to send people back to work before the epidemic is under control--"we're not talking about months," the President says. He wants to ease restrictions in 10 days, at Easter, though evidence is clear that premature easing in Hong Kong caused an increase in new cases. A doctor who wrote a controversial OpEd piece in the NYTimes says in an interview that his parents care more about leaving a financial legacy than surviving the pandemic. This is seconded by a Texas politician: "'Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,' Patrick, who is 69, added. After the lieutenant governor’s bizarre vow, Carlson wanted to make sure he had it all correct: 'So you’re basically saying that this disease could take your life but that’s not the the scariest thing to you. There’s something that would be worse than dying.' Patrick agreed with his summary." The sadism in remarks like these is too terrible to contemplate.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 11 3/25/20 World 438,667/19734 later 472,168/21,169 US 54,438/793 later in day 59502/804 even later 65527/930 FR 22,304/1100 DK 1715/34 NYS 26430 ?/271 later 30811/285 NYC 15000+/192 Today we sat at breakfast discussing how we'd take care of each other if one of us got sick--which room the sick person would be confined to, what our food supplies are, protocol for contacting personal doctors and public health services, advice to get from our doctor-daughter, possibility of calling for help from our son and fiancee in Albany. Important stuff, not easily talked about. It wasn't grim but sober and methodical in a way that we hadn't talked before. Obviously all this had been on our minds, but it was the kind of thing you put off confronting. When you finally do, you talk quietly, out of the side of your mouth, so as not to tempt the fates. The scenes in movies where people in hiding have serious, articulate planning sessions are probably wrong--the real talks must be mostly mumbling. It was partly a result of a strong article in the NYT written by a woman taking care of her ill husband and hoping that their teenage daughter wouldn't get sick too. Article is unflinching, hard to read but very valuable. https://www.nytimes.com/…/…/magazine/coronavirus-family.html Then we skyped with our niece M. at the cottage in the Danish countryside that we own together; M. and a friend moved there a few weeks ago. She took her laptop outside so that we could tour the garden and show her which roses needed to be cut back and which ones to leave alone. It was painful to be so far away--after a number of years, one develops a special relationship to each rose bush, and not being able to go there is excruciating. It was so sunny in the Danish garden that a glare bounced off the new grass--the baby-freshness of the grass got to me. It wasn't fair that my eyes couldn't see that new green color in person. The elderly latina check-out woman in the supermarket early yesterday morning is on my mind. In the store by 6:00 am; dealing with scared, impatient customers all day; risking her life to serve them and then getting paid shit wages to boot. Too much to ask of a person. And the Congress and President can't see their way to give people like her real relief. Here is a short opinion piece in Liberation talking about the "invisible service workers" who are suddenly visible: https://www.liberation.fr/…/cette-crise-rend-visibles-ceux-… And an interview in The Atlantic with the Danish Secretary of Labor. The government took lightning-quick action apparently generous to the whole labor force: http://on.theatln.tc/jEK1Ug3 The Schaubuhne theater is one of the best in Berlin, and Berlin is the best theater city in the world. They're streaming plays online, some with English subtitles:https://www.timeout.com/…/the-worlds-coolest-theatre-is-str… It felt like today was the first day that I settled into a routine not so different from my usual one. I was less afraid than yesterday. I'm wondering if that's OK. Isn't it dangerous not to be afraid? But then I see this, and I'm right back: https://www.nytimes.com/video/nyregion/100000007052136/coronavirus-elmhurst-hospital-queens.html?smid=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR191iLvFszFyJRIxpQ5idbF2xAQCLaYg9aGpVR5JNcKtRN7VrwlnNAcEG0
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 12 3/26/20 World 490,235/22032 later in day 534,386/24072 US 66481/1044 later in day 85327/1305 FR 25733/1331 DK 1996/34 NYS 33013/366 later in day 38977/469 NYC 23113/365 First time 100 died in NYS in one day All three of us have had moments of intense anxiety, panic attacks, whatever: freezing up with terror, can't breathe or talk, etc. The bottom drops out, everything is black and hopeless, the end is near. Xanax and lorazepam help. But we also have old problems that can't be addressed at the moment--for me a tear in an ankle tendon for which I was getting twice-a-week physiotherapy. My therapist--a fantastically literate Turkish-born Greek who reads high literature in four languages--has a tiny office, and had to close up shop. I have to hope that the support I use for the ankle will hold up until I can see him again. This must be the most minor of problems. What are people doing who have to see their doctors or physiotherapists for really serious problems? First person I know to die of the virus. My best friend's youngest brother J, an asthmatic, late 60s. He lived alone in Dallas, complained of what doctors thought was a severe allergic reaction to spring pollen, didn't answer his phone this past weekend. I knew him since he was a gawky, totally lovable high school kid who made home movies with all his family and friends: Lone starred in one as "Luana Lamour." Never met anyone with more life in him than J. I make faces in the mirror that I've never seen before--right out of Joaquin Phoenix's performance in The Joker. My family like most is spread all over the country--NY, California, DC, New Mexico. Daughter gets the idea today to plan a virtual Seder via zoom. My sister in LA gets on the stick and bombards everyone with emails. Finally a meaningful project! We really do need each other. Always felt that Sartre's line in No Exit about Hell being other people was completely wacky: Hell is the absolute absence of other people. Today a genuine spring day. Walked around in Lone's sunny backyard. So much life percolating--young squirrels chasing each other with incredible vigor, anthills under construction, signs of larger animals (deer? raccoons?) scraping under oak trees for acorns, birds calling a distinct "tater-later" back and forth to each other from treetops. Azaleas, magnolias, tulips, all shoots sticking out of ground like an early Kusama penis sculpture, everything pushing up toward the sun. I feel like a pet dog locked in by an electric fence--can't leave, can't run. Every cell in my body wants this to be a normal day. I don't want to be afraid anymore! Where can I register a complaint? Will get a leaf rake and go back to raking up fall leaves. What can you call this activity? Getting a real garden ready for a virtual summer? I wish everything didn't seem like a fucking episode of Star Trek. But then Albert Camus's hopeful line: In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Lots of people dying in NYS and NYC, up to 385 in city, first day where 100 died. Governor and feds say that there are enough ventilators, on site doctors say no. Nobody wants to talk about possibility of triage, but federal government seems indifferent. Noam Chomsky said on Facebook today that the English language doesn't have a word extreme enough to describe Trump's heartlessness. And yet it's such a nice spring day. Pure disjunction: reminds me of Breughel's painting Fall of Icarus. Season is just about now: farmer ploughing, shepherd leaning on staff enjoying the sun, everybody going about their business as little figure of Icarus crashes into sea. Auden's poem about the Breughel painting is about human indifference, but the painting itself is about human indifference AND the indifference of a lovely spring day. Musee des Beaux Arts W. H. Auden About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 13 3/27/20 World 543,418/ 25, 256 US 85498/3292 FR 29 155/1696 DK 2017/52 NYS 38 977/ 469 later in day 44635/519 NYC 17698/450 US surpasses China as the country in the world with most corona cases; 2000 firefighters and paramedics in NYC call in sick today. Roofers doing work on house today. They spend the day with big hoses blasting off the collected moss. I watch them through a big plate-glass window. They don't look dangerous, potential carriers of virus. With their tool belts, hoses and boots, they look more like rescuers coming after the epidemic to save us. A beautiful woman of a certain age hates cooking and has managed to avoid it most of her life. She tells me on the phone that because she's in social isolation, she's actually trying it. She still hates it. She's thinking of compiling a cookbook called What Spices Not to Use in Recipes. The predominant feeling of the day is dullness, numbness. The numbers are really alarming. Finally Chicken Little seems to be right. But even the President's paper-thin deceptions, his childish obsession with being "the best," are lullingly familiar instead of infuriating. We've said all we have to say, tried to frame our fear and disappointment in a thousand inadequate ways. The paradox is that as the numbers get worse, they don't seem quite as alarming. Not false hope, just numbness. Another thought about hope. The ability to be creative in a situation like this one has to be based on hope--hope that one won't die, that this will be over and the world won't be completely disfigured. Belief in a future better than the present. But now I can understand better how people who've lived without hope for centuries, vast groups of oppressed people, could be lethargic, self-destructive, addictive; in my low moments, I feel all those things inside me. I'm beginning to think of this as my Diary of Anne Frank. Here's a blog about the real diary: https://www.hercirclenews.com/…/anne-frank-and-the-caronavi… Another favorite poem about things of this world-- laundry drying on clotheslines. Love Calls Us to the Things of This World BY RICHARD WILBUR The eyes open to a cry of pulleys, And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple As false dawn. Outside the open window The morning air is all awash with angels. Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, Some are in smocks: but truly there they are. Now they are rising together in calm swells Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing; Now they are flying in place, conveying The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving And staying like white water; and now of a sudden They swoon down into so rapt a quiet That nobody seems to be there. The soul shrinks From all that it is about to remember, From the punctual rape of every blessèd day, And cries, “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” Yet, as the sun acknowledges With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, The soul descends once more in bitter love To accept the waking body, saying now In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises, “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows; Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone, And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating Of dark habits, keeping their difficult balance.” A friend in the city tells me a simple truth: "Everybody here is exposed."
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 14 3/28/20 World 627,182/28705 US 105,016/2467 FR 32964/1995 DK 2356/65 NYS 46262/606 NYC 26697/450 According to some reports, corona patients are starting to overflow NYC hospitals. I've lived in this tough city my whole life; like many NYers, I tried to leave, but never found a place as gritty and seductive. Being even an hour away--where I am now-- feels like disloyalty in the city's hour of need. I worry for my friends. An old friend called today who was told by a doctor-friend last week to get her kids out of the city. She rented a car, piled them in, drove all night to a relative's vacation home. When she arrived, a man flashed a light in her face and questioned her; when she said she was from NYC, he backed away. This afternoon in a speech on the deck of the hospital ship that the government has dispatched to the city, Trump talked about shutting down the tri-state area. Just in! He takes it back. There were times in my life when the city saw itself, with some justification, as the 51st state; this may be one of those times. We had to get out of the house today. Took a drive on a rain-soaked afternoon around Bear Mountain and north. Stopped at a few scenic outlooks where most of the people were Asian; they seemed to be tourists who'd been marooned in the US when the epidemic started and were going to get their money's worth whatever it took. All the towns were pretty much shut down; only a few diners had their lights on, and hopeful "We're Open!" signs in the window. But we didn't want take-out food. We wanted to sit down, take our time, look at menus, soak up atmosphere-- pleasures that used to be completely mundane and essential now seemed exotic. Is it possible that for years we won't be able to sit in a diner and have a hamburger? We finally stopped at a gas station kiosk and settled for hot dogs. They tasted like contraband. Large clusters of school buses stood idle in huge parking lots: that was almost the saddest thing of all. Iceland is testing thousands from general population as well as people with corona symptoms. Apparently fully half the people who test positive are asymptomatic, which among other things suggests the possibility of using their antibodies: https://english.alarabiya.net/…/Coronavirus-Iceland-s-mass-… https://www.nbcnews.com/…/iceland-employs-detective-work-te… Another article I read in a Danish newspaper (you can use google translate) about testing for corona in Iceland reveals information that I haven't run across before-- their scientists have found several strains of corona in their small 300,000+ population, and in one infected person they found more than one variety. What they don't know about this disease is daunting. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 15 Even God takes Sundays off... 3/29/20 World 715,212/33,585 US 136,492/2439 France 40174/2606 Denmark 2554/72 NYS 59513/965 NYC 33768/678 237 died in NYS in last 24 hours; doubling rate of infections in NYS down to every six days.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 16 3/30/20
World 742,138/35,048 US 143,724/2593 France 40174/2606 ? DK 2555/77 NYS 60679/1213 NYC 36231/790
As well as going into a phase where the infection approaches a peak, we're in a period where people's nerves are fraying. I feel it a lot. I interrupt people, am impatient to get my space to talk, can't stand anybody saying anything stupid. Sometimes I want to withdraw and close down. I recognize how "normal" these reactions are, which doesn't make anything better. It will get worse. I dread the thought of what kind of people this is turning us into. A friend tells me that he had a melt-down yesterday. He froze up, started to weep, couldn't breathe, had to be gently talked down. I got a note from someone I met only once 15 years ago, asking how I am: I must be at the bottom of her loneliness barrel. I sent a polite, bewildered reply, and didn't hear from her again. She probably came to her senses and said to herself, "Why the fuck did I contact him?!" The mornings are almost intolerable. It's not easy to get out of bed. I have to talk myself through it. Do I have any symptoms of anything? Why can't I see a dermatologist about the new pimple on my arm? What if my throat closes up the way it sometimes does? Is my doctor in the city still answering phones? Will the local drugstore take his prescriptions, or am I an unwelcome refugee? If I get the virus, will the hospital let me in? My friend A.is a hiker and mountain climber--you can hardly keep up with her when she walks down city blocks--and she takes no medications though she's in her 70s. Yet her neighbor knocks on her door to ask if he can do some shopping for her. We go to the market at "old people's time" when everybody seems to have the same expression: "You're old, but I'm not!" Add this humiliation to the thought of being confined for the next 18 months, and you get a bunch of bitter, angry people torn between their fear of infection and their outrage at being considered old before their time. C. tells me that the parking lot of an East Hampton supermarket is littered with hundreds of discarded plastic gloves that shoppers used to buy goods. Immigrant employees getting paid $5-$10 an hour have to sweep them up. We took a walk in the woods down a trail today. It was like a forbidden pleasure. Is it really true that the "most vulnerable level of the population" will be in confinement for the next 18 months? I feel like a soldier who has the sudden intuition that he's never going to see his home again. Antibodies from the plasma of recovered patients are starting to be injected experimentally into sick patients: https://www.nytimes.com/…/plasma-coronavirus-treatment.html… Even the President was more muted today. Now they calculate 100,000-200,000 deaths at the low end. A figure like that leaves one exhausted.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 17 3/31/20
World 792,509/37947 US 16,4359/3173 France 44,744/3024 DK 2815/77 NYS 67,325/1342 later in day 75795/1550 NYC 43,139/932
Rate of infection slowing slightly in NYS, but state and city officials desperate for more medical help, need to triple municipal hospital facilities. Today’s Presidential press conference somewhat more focused and unified than usual. They discussed the projected models in detail, predicting that the peak would come after the next couple of weeks of April, and by June would level out. Probably a second wave would occur in the fall. It seemed to me the first time that scientists and the administration were on the same page. The 100,000-200,000 deaths was the best-case scenario, 1-2 million the worst. I called my building today to ask if somebody could go up to my apartment to water the plants. Ordinarily D is cheerful, sweet, ultra-helpful. Today he was nervous, angry. "Nobody wants to be here!" he almost shouted into the phone. Could understand why: tenants like me are jumping ship, running off to relatives and summer houses, while he and the staff of the building (he has three kids) have to stay in the war-zone without getting any added benefits. He has a right to be pissed off. My friends J and P are both artists. J emails me that he's getting his exercise by pacing back and forth for an hour on a 100 ft. terrace across the facade of their building, and P trudges around their loft for an hour every day: then they work out together. I try to do it too. Most days I pace around the backyard in a crescent-moon pattern. The paths we're wearing into the ground and the wooden floors of course are totally invisible, but there must be thousands of them around the world. Today I heard of the first suicide that may have been at least partially occasioned by the virus. He was the friend of a friend, a writer, high-strung and depressive, but the in-house confinement may have been the tipping point. The funeral will be virtual. On a cheerier note, my sister has gathered 20 members of our family together for a virtual Seder to take place in a couple of weeks. Many of these relatives have never met. Listened to a poet-gardener on radio talking about an acre-sized orchard that he started in a poor section of Bloomington Indiana. Made me miss the old apple and Mirabelle plum trees around the Danish cottage, the new trees that A. and I planted, all the berry bushes that my father-in-law planted--blueberries, gooseberries, currants. As we all wait for the ax to fall, hoping that it won't fall on us, there is also a pall over everything that makes it almost impossible to imagine trees and bushes bearing fruit. When I get back to those trees and bushes, I'll pull up a chair next to them and sit for hours just watching them grow. Tomorrow, a short story from a new genre: virus fiction.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 18 4/1/20
World 879,062/43893 US 188,8881/4056 France 52375/3523 Denmark 3092/104 NYS 75983/1714 NYC 45,000?/1139
Here's a story that wrote itself.
A guy who says he's the virus-man keeps up with me no matter how fast I run. That's weird because he's sickly-looking, needs a shave, has mousy thinning hair. I can't tell if he's bragging about being the virus-man because he wants to feel like a big shot or if he actually is the virus-man disguised in one of the many ways that viruses use to slow people down. As we jog along, his hands reach out to me like hands in a bad horror film, but I keep my social distance and assume the karate pose that my trainer taught me. I know that it's not a good idea to engage with a virus-man in any way, shape or form, but the menacing pose gives me at least a semblance of security. "Sorry to bother you," he puffs as I pick up the pace. He looks like he's finally running out of steam. "You don't have to feel sorry for me," he gasps, "even though I do have the virus." "I thought you said that you are the virus." "I just said that to make lemonade out of lemons." "I think you're trying to gain my sympathy so that I'll slow down." "It's complicated," he says, and he slumps to the sidewalk. As he falls, he looks truly wistful and frail. He's lying there in a heap. At first I keep going, but then I look back and see him on the ground. I double back and stand looking down at him for what feels like hours. People jog by at a social distance. When I tell them what happened, they seem sympathetic but share my indecision. Someone brings me a folding chair. The virus-man isn't moving, but I don't get close enough to see if he's pretending. I sit there the whole night keeping guard over him like a dog. It's early spring, just warm enough not to be wearing a coat. I sit with my new companion, dazzled by the canopy of stars in the unpolluted sky. Occasional shadows pass by; maybe they think that we both have the virus. The unfamiliar silence elevates me into the cosmos. It really does. I solve all the mysteries of the universe from the nature of time to the existence of God. I stop the oceans from rising, the icecaps from melting, I cleanse the air of toxins. I make ecstatic love to beautiful people of all sexes. I run up mountains without getting winded, I save people from drowning, I live to hear my great-grandchildren talking about me with admiration. I eradicate many evil people who are beyond redemption. I meet other people who are infinitely wiser than I am, and I sit at their feet. I even start thinking about the virus-man. Once he had a mother and father. He was a little boy with innate skills and a capacity for fun. What brought him to this terrible place where he thinks of himself as nothing but a virus? I nudge him with my foot. He stirs, sits up, looks around. The stars are fading into morning. "I don't have the virus," he sighs. "I wish I did. Then I wouldn't always have to be afraid." I start to thank him for the night's revelations, but then it strikes me: Was their very splendor--and the way that my fear and his frailty brought us together in a kind of desperate love-- just another trick to make me let down my defenses? With no small amount of pride I explain to him how I know now that he really is the virus-man. He struggles to his feet and looks at me with a sadness so heavy-lidded that it almost shuts his eyes. "I understand that line of reasoning, but in times like these it sounds even more idiotic than usual. Try to come up with something a little better. Now I'll be on my way."
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 19
4/2/20 World 982,254/50,276 later in day 1,022,152/53, 423 Over one million recorded cases. US 227,061/5345 FR 56989/4032 DK 3356/123 NYS 92381/2372 NYC 52000?/1300+
6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits today. 10 million unemployed so far. Small businesses supposedly covered for four months, though I chat with my physiotherapist who tells me that loans will be administered through banks, and his bank has no idea what to do. Trump erratic today, attacking Democrats for setting up oversight committee. He's overwhelmed and lacks the organizational skills to centralize authority and meet medical needs. Hard to say who's steering the ship.
The closest phrase I can find for the way I feel is nervous boredom. Time has become slower and faster. Each day feels sluggish, gooey; getting through it is like wading through molasses. But everything also moves too fast: I meant to read the book, work on the article, do the exercises, but all I managed was to listen to news I already knew, take my vitamins (or did I?), walk around in the backyard a couple of times and kick myself for not doing more. Nevertheless I'm slowly falling into a daily routine. My body has begun to accept that this will not end anytime soon, that house-arrest is the watchword of the foreseeable future. I manage to take showers, change from night clothes to day clothes, eat meals at more or less the usual times. But there is a great seductive temptation to let it all go and let the day sprawl shapelessly before me. The hyper-vigilant sense of uniqueness that marked the first few weeks is being replaced by pedestrian plodding through a diminished set of daily possibilities. The "new normal" is a cynical term for this state of being--more troubling is that soon it won't be "new." When this ends-- if it ends-- many of us will emerge like prisoners liberated from concentration camps--not sure of how to navigate freedom.
Some of my friends guiltily admit to enjoying the break from their lives. "I haven't had a vacation in ages," A tells me. "I got a big check just before the virus hit," says B. "So for the moment I'm good financially. My wife and I take two hours for breakfast, and our biggest decision of the day is what to have for dinner." "I'm getting more work done at home because there are fewer distractions," says C. "And I don't miss restaurants at all." . But next to this pleasant languor is TV footage of people standing in line for food. The open secret that tens of millions live from paycheck to paycheck, and now that they're missing a few paychecks, they're desperate. So much for unparalleled prosperity and record employment. For a few days Trump talked about a massive infrastructure bill. It was the first time that he treated the idea with more than sloganeering. Now he seems to be back in his paranoid mode, and the idea is lost. But how else will we deal with the coming depression? And what will all those unemployed people do?
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 20
World 1,042,298/55,257 US 246,442/6099 FR 59195/5387 DK 3672/139 NYS 93,053/2538 later in day 102,863/2935 NYC 57159/1867 12 fatalities an hour in NYC
Now NYS and NYC are in the throes of the pandemic. Stats are staggering: More deaths in state today--562--than in first 27 days of March. 45,000 new medical workers needed, 10,000 positive tests today. The numbers have the shrillness of the legendary plagues--the Black Plague, smallpox, etc. The numbers aren't anything like them yet, but this epidemic starts to feel legendary. We talk about our wills at breakfast table--how unprepared we are, how all our wills need revision. Who will die first. What diseases we're predisposed to. Fun topics. We talk about how America was built by people who didn't want anyone else to tell them what to do, and that makes cooperation problematic in time of a plague. On the radio in the background there's the familiar talk about the lockdown lasting to summer, maybe relaxing regulations fir a while, a probable uptick in fall, no end in sight until a vaccine. Dr. Fauci and others patiently repeating the same answers days after day. My ears are sore from hearing it over and over, but in a way the monotony is numbing if not soothing. Except for those who are sick--and probably quaking with fear-- the rest of the world more or less just sits and waits. A day of writing and self-promotion--what a writer usually does-- and talks to friends in the city. They don't sound panicky (maybe because they live in areas not so heavily affected). The dark red circles mostly are in poor areas, big surprise. I press my friends for details. What are the streets like? Do you take walks? What's the general mood? I can't escape the sense that when I go back the city will be a ghost town. Watched Making the Cut, the spinoff of Project Runway. This version was obviously filmed before the pandemic. There was a chilling moment when Tim Gunn came into the designers' atelier and said breathlessly: "I'm absolutely sure that the creator of the next global fashion brand is in this room!" What kind of global fashion brand can there be after a pandemic? Weather still bleak, gray, chilly. But all kinds of blue-green weed grasses are pushing through. When you live with dread, you're separated from the relentless diversity of impressions and information that ordinarily you're able to grasp when you're feeling relatively peaceful. But in this moment, the fact that nothing has changed yet everything has changed is simply too enormous to take in. Impressions and thoughts aren't part of a continuum; they're more like pieces of broken glass. This sense of fragmentation must contribute to why we're exhausted by the end of the day, and why the media are filled with advice about getting to sleep.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 21 4/4/20 World 1,156, 211/61,805 later in day 64,084 US 290, 920/7844 later in day 8175 FR 82,165/6507 later in day 7574 DK 4238/161 NYS 113,704/3565 NYC ?/ 2464 40% increase of deaths overnight in NYC. 30,000 new cases reported in US yesterday. While official number of deaths in Wuhan is around 2,500, several sources maintain (Washington Post) that it was really around 40,000. Over 1 million cases worldwide. When does this start to be terrifying? Because the big picture is too big to take in, at breakfast we talked details. Health care proxies. Which masks to use. How to give N95 masks to the local hospital. Whether--or when-- we should get hearing aids. Mixed in were details that used to be part of everyday life: which supermarkets to try to vary our menu, whether or not to get a haircut, and how. After the initial shock, everything reduces to details. The mother of my son's friend who tested positive is out of the hospital. She's come down with pneumonia but isn't sick enough to go back in. Apparently one has to be sick to the precise degree where hospitalization can be most effective. If you're too sick, you stay home to die; not sick enough, stay home and heal. B. says that they're also wondering how to disinfect the apartment after she gets better: how long before others can go into the apartment. Dealing with details offers comfort or at least distraction. From an old pal, Ruth Galanter, now a retired LA City Councilperson: "Nervous boredom is a good description. Except I’m not actually bored, I suppose because the nervous part keeps me emailing or phoning people 'just because.' But certainly I can’t tell at the end of the day where it went; I didn’t do the exercises, I did cook, I didn’t read anything besides newspapers or websites (same ones repeatedly throughout the day). The other day I decided it was time to start a knitting project. It took over 1/2 hour to find my stitch gauge, after which I was too worn out to use it. (I did use it the following day, but the project has not yet begun—passive voice seems to fit better than active.) The hardest part for me is imagining that there really will be an 'after,' albeit some months from now, or maybe years. Before all this, I was planning to get a new car. Now, is it worth bothering? Will I still be hale enough to drive by the time this is over? To travel?" A Danish nurse-friend reports high numbers of false negatives in testing: some health-care workers with obvious symptoms had to be tested four times to register positive. If the test is this bad, the real numbers must be wildly higher than the current figures. An image that comes to mind: the scene in a submarine movie where captain and crew listen anxiously in silence for the enemy ship's depth-charges to hit the hull. At times waves of gratitude break over me: for Dennis and Lone graciously taking me in; for being alive and still functional, and having people who love me and whom I love; for having good kids; for not having to deal for a while with the pre-corona bullshit; that in the few minutes it's taken to write this I saw through the window a robin, a sparrow, a chickadee, a cardinal and a blue-jay. The cardinal was as bright as a flamingo. And I still haven't figured out which bird is calling "tater-later" very loudly in the treetops.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 22 4/5/20
World 1, 246,569/67,909 US 323.568/ 9172 FR 89 253/ 7560 DK 4302/179 NYS 122034/ 4169 NYC 67000+/ 2600
A day of rest.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 23 4/6/20
World 1,361,365/70,622 US 336,906/9624 later in day 10,000+ FR 92,839/8078 DK 4830/187 NYS 123,018/4159 NYC 67000+/3128
Deaths in NYC slowly decreasing but supply of ventilators may last only till tomorrow. This week expected to be the worst in US, possibly the beginning of apex in NYC. Difficulties in processing patients because of lack of centralization--too many agencies involved. Reports of hospitals in conflict with health care workers, who bring their own PPE. (When Dennis brought our N95 masks to local hospital, desk clerk was wildly grateful.) First reported cases of cats getting virus--may prove to be an additional health hazard. Psychological problems mounting--lack of physical contact.
Two particularly alarming bits of news from later in day: Boris Johnson in intensive care--first world leader whose life has been threatened; and article in Wash Post about grocery workers dying. Hard to imagine that sooner or later there won't be more illness among grocery workers and delivery people: severe food shortages.
A beautiful day. We snuck off to take a drive and buy a take-out breakfast at McDonald's. Haze of green on the trees. Canada geese returning. At McDonald's the attendant on the speaker-phone sounded frazzled, confused, and the eyes above the mask of the woman who gave us our bag of food were filled with fear. All the work-people we saw on the drive were Hispanic. Their eyes (to me anyway) looked either frightened, or hard and resolute. Painful to see. Hard to know how to help.
When I catch myself enjoying a moment, it feels like scenes in British movies of upper-class girls giggling on sunny lawns who suddenly realize that there's a war going on. Mixture of guilt, disloyalty and fear. I'm being disrespectful of the dying and of all the people on the front lines, and at the same time I'm leaving myself open to the kind of danger that sneaks up when you let down your guard. I bawl myself out: Stop savaging yourself. You can't survive without some happiness! Then I spend the day lurching between these feelings.
David Frierman, my daughter's mentor in acupuncture and integrative medicine, sends the beginning of Rilke's 10th Duino Elegy (Lieshman/Spender translation), which is about accepting one's fear, and then some:
Someday, emerging at last from this terrifying vision, May I burst into jubilant praise to assenting Angels! May not even one of the clear-struck keys of the heart fail to respond through alighting on slack or doubtful or rending strings! May a new-found splendour appear in my steaming face! May inconspicuous Weeping flower! How dear you will be to me then, you Nights of Affliction! Oh, why did I not, inconsolable sisters, more bendingly kneel to receive you, more loosely surrender myself to your loosened hair? We wasters of sorrows! How we stare away into sad endurance beyond them, trying to foresee their end! Whereas they are nothing else than our winter foliage, our sombre evergreen, one of the seasons of our interior year, --not only season—they’re also place, settlement, camp, soil, dwelling.
Just in case one gets sloppy about protection, here is a painful, vivid article about what it's like to be dying in the hospital: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/05/youre-basically-right-next-nuclear-reactor/?arc404=true&fbclid=IwAR1XAuFjF4hiUcMle1PTEgekVHWLRMAiHKUVygu03iRjFmCvIbWLepMUcHU
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 24 4/7/20
World 1,364,638/76,420 US 388,174/10,960 FR 96,101/8911 DK 5255/203 NYS 131,916/4768 later in day 5400+ deaths ; 731 deaths in one day highest so far, but drop in hospitalizations. NYC 67000+/3128
Now it really is a question of just waiting. There are faint signs that the curve may be flattening, but these are really more wishes than facts. The President was particularly reckless and sadistic today, firing the overseer of a task force charged with watching over how the administration distributes the trillions of dollars to deal with the pandemic; threatening to stop funding to the World Health Organization; applauding a ruling that disallowed the postponement of key elections in Wisconsin, which had reduced polling places in Milwaukee, the city with the largest minority population in the state, from 180 to 5. It is hard not to hate the man. In the past his cruelty and vanity have been repugnant but possible to ignore, at least for extended moments; now they are criminal.
I speak regularly to friends in Denmark and Sweden. As of today, the stats are Denmark 5255/203 and Sweden 7963/591. Denmark's population is 5.6 million, Sweden 10.4. Denmark's policy is in line with most countries--shelter-in-place, all schools closed, no assembling, all non-essential businesses closed. Sweden is a maverick: primary schools are open, restaurants and recreational centers open, assemblies up to 50 people permitted. What's interesting is that my Swedish friends are staunchly behind their government's policies, and my Danish friends even more staunchly--actually passionately--behind their government. The stats are roughly the same in terms of population. Most Swedes are probably social-distancing anyway, so a comparison between policies may be irrelevant. "Best guess" in this situation is as close as anyone can come to authoritative answers. It's always been like this anyway, but in this case "best" doesn't carry us very far.
On Christmas Day I got sick. At first it felt like a cold or light flu, but after a few days I got a fever that yo-yoed almost violently; it felt like something I'd never had before. I was on antibiotics for a week, then had congested lungs and extreme fatigue for the next six weeks. I talked a lot about "heaviness in my chest." Finally went to a pulmonologist who said that I had adult-onset asthma, and he put me on an inhaler for three more weeks. It's only now, three months after I got sick, that my lungs feel clear. I'm starting to run across other people on the internet who think that they might have had corona in Jan. or Feb. My personal theory is that I could have picked up something from one of the Chinese Via drivers in the city; at one point Cuomo said that the virus most likely had been in the city since December. It's nothing but a theory--and a wish to be temporarily super-human, immune to the virus. I called the pulmonologist's office today to ask if they still had the blood they'd drawn; of course they'd thrown it out. My sister tells me that she saw a doctor on TV who was skeptical that Americans could have gotten the virus before February; he maintained that they had other forms of flu. The one thing that makes me doubt my theory is that people around me didn't get equally sick. I probably have to go back to being just human. Today the NYT had an article about an antibody test just approved by the FDA. If we all get tested, some of us will be dubbed super-human. Then what? https://www.nytimes.com/…/h…/coronavirus-antibody-test.html… https://www.nytimes.com/…/h…/coronavirus-antibody-test.html…
Here's a fun article about the two reality shows that dominate our lives: the Trump Show and the Cuomo show. (For some reason you have to lift the whole URL and put it into the slot instead of just clicking on it.) Thanks, Anne Elliott.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 25 4/8/20
World 1,452,1234/83,499 US 401,146/12,857 DK 5570/216 NYS 142,384/5489 NYS breaks record for second day of deaths in one day: 779. NYC 69000+/4111
Well-meaning people on the media keep saying, "We have to use this opportunity to change x, to rethink y, right the wrongs of z." All this seems admirable but profoundly naive. The necessary changes are so massive, the social forces so intractable, that it's impossible even to know where to start. Of course the one positive model is the Depression fostering FDR and the New Deal, which then led to several decades of a controlled economy that in hindsight seems like the best years in history. But it's hard to imagine the success of post-1945 without WWII and the emergence of the US as the world's most powerful industrial nation, so another New Deal is a pretty big stretch of the imagination. Which of course doesn't mean that we shouldn't spend at least a little time dreaming. But rather than spending too much time speculating about what to do at the end of the tunnel, isn't it ultimately more productive to feel the full pain of the moment, and try to think up ways to help? My friend J. seems to have the virus. He always thought that he'd get it because he zips around the city from client to client. The symptoms haven't been severe--heaviness in his chest, cough at different times of the day--and he's drinking a gallon of water a day. I worry about him. I don't like that he's going it alone. He's pretty cavalier about it--"I'm 99.9% asymptomatic"--which in some form is what I would hope to be in his shoes-- if nor cheerful, at least stoic. But the thought of my good friend at the mercy of something completely unknown and unpredictable makes me angry. I feel so helpless. Multiply this feeling let's say 5 times for the loved ones of each infected person, and you have a chorus of anger and frustration, of worry and fear, that only Dante could have heard in his head. Tonight is the first night of Passover. Plagues indeed. My family will do our zoom Passover on Saturday. In my whole adult life my "family" has never remotely felt as much like a family as it does this year. And I never thought in a million years that I'd take my Grandpa's place at the head of the table. But here it is, Grandpa. Isn't it funny and cool? I'll ask you afterward how I did.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 26 4/9/20
World 1,539,839/90,048 US 435,167/14,797 FR 112,950/10,869 DK 5819/237 NYS 151,171/6268 NYC 87028/5280 Another record day of deaths in NYC: 799. Lowering numbers of hospital admittances.
Seems to me that my friends and relatives who are alone in their apartments are having it hardest. I hear haste, impatience and frustration in their voices; they're trying to push the clock ahead. Even if they're annoyed by the quirks of their cell mates, the people who are living with others sound calmer; their gripes are pitched lower. Then there's a happy subset, those people who tend to be solitary anyway, who are enjoying the attention and contact even if it's virtual, and perhaps even enjoying the fact that their way of life is now the norm. We've been watching the Ken Burns' series, The Roosevelts. Didn't start watching it with any parallels in mind, but they're unavoidable: the Depression was even described as a scourge, a disease. What seems to me most remarkable about Roosevelt was his inventiveness--he and his cabinet never stopped popping out ideas. Whether these ideas worked--many didn't--almost didn't seem to matter: people felt good that he kept trying, believed that he was working for their best interests, and the psychological effect must have been as important as his programs' effectiveness. Maybe if Bernie or Elizabeth Warren had become President, they would have been energetic idea-generators too; we'll never know. But it was also about Roosevelt's charm, his charisma. Without charm, Roosevelt could never have won over a disheartened populous so completely, used his popularity as a wedge against the Congress and pushed through so much legislation. I remember my parents raving about him after his death; I even have vague recollections of my mother crying while listening to the radio broadcast of his funeral. To me his face isn't just handsome; it's the face of a god. Only Kennedy in our time had anything like it, and his charm felt a little canned. (Although Burns makes it clear how calculated Roosevelt was about disguising his weaknesses.) It's much too early to tell whether the government's efforts to pump back money into the economy will avoid a Depression, but the lack of charismatic leaders like Roosevelt--which may mean nothing more than leaders who love to be with other people--is pretty stunning. Today the waiting reminds me of sick days when I was a kid--before antibiotics worked as quickly as they do now, and you spent days in a pleasantly dim haze with comic books and swollen tonsils.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 27 4/10/20
W 1624718/97318 US 568893/16997 FR ?/12210 DK 5819/247 NYS 161504/ 7844
Slight drop in NYC deaths--771--and drop in cases admitted to NYC hospitals. Real number of deaths most likely higher; tally doesn't reflect deaths at home. Many discussions in media about high death rate among African-Americans and Hispanics, and need for mass testing. Supposedly there is antibody test that will be available next week; not clear who will get it, or how much will be available. Evidence of breaks in food supply chain: shortages in stores, lots of infected workers, TV footage of free food being distributed. Increasing signs of coming Depression: 1/3 of renters couldn't pay rent this month, even higher rate of default for small business renters: this will lead to landlords not being able to pay mortgages, ergo similar problems to 2008 with tranche mortgages defaulted, money owed to multiple parties. Competition between nations and states for medical equipment rages on because Trump is incapable of coordinating effort between states, let alone work with other countries. There's a macabre fascination in seeing how few abilities he actually has. Paced around the backyard like a prisoner getting his hour in the yard. Body not happy about being so sedentary. Then a sudden, elusive spring smell. I remembered the smell of my baseball glove and a new white leather hardball, the feel of the ball in my hands as I worked it in, a body-memory in my arms and shoulders saying that now it was time to get moving! Thought of the tricky bounces that a new hardball can take when someone hits a hard grounder straight at you. And the orgasm that I felt way before I could actually have them the few times I hit the ball on the exact right spot on a bat and felt the energy of the swing go into the ball and transmute into pure flight. New hardballs were perfect, precious. You felt honored to own one. It's pipe-dreaming to think that post-virus we'll go back to a "simpler way of life"; they've already screwed up the hardball to make it easier for steroid-swollen players to hit home runs. But without getting too Norman Rockwell about it, it's nice to think of families at home during this time doing things like rubbing up hardballs, doing jigsaw puzzles and learning how to cook. A friend, historian Jean-Claude Richez, passes along a comic Passover application for Jews to leave Egypt-- in the form that Parisians in corona time have to use to get from one arrondisement to another:
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 28 4/11/20
World 1,717,992/103,959 US 503,177/18,761 FR 124,868/13,939 DK 6003/260 NYS 172,558/? NYC ? Over 100,000 deaths in world from the virus. Deaths in NYS back up to 783.
First thing every morning I type in the numbers. These days I do it totally automatically, as if I'm typing in today's National Debt, which will never be paid. As I make matzoh balls for the seder tonight, and study the tulips buds about to open, I'm dimly aware that beyond this safe little circle, about 4,000 people-- and these are only the ones recorded--will suffocate to death from the virus today. A morning foray to shop and get a take-out breakfast. Lots of people in the supermarket and the malls, too many. This is the time when we start to get restless and make mistakes. The only statistic that we're able to see is the low percentage of people who actually die of the virus, and I for one am capable of huge rationalizations: I'm not really in the most vulnerable category, I can do 50 push-ups! In these next weeks impatient people will risk getting infected for increased freedom of movement. Understandable: the organism wants to move, to expand, to fill space! Along the highway by the mall: a man wearing a mask and holding a cardboard sign: "I need everything." Gerhard Joseph, old teaching pal, sends a bad Passover joke: "A Polish shtetl hires its poorest Jew to wait at the border for the Messiah. A friend goes down to commiserate and asks why he's doing it: His answer: 'True, it doesn't pay very well, but it's steady work.' True for us all right now." Tonight the most extraordinary family seder that I could ever have imagined. A gift of the virus. Will write more about it Monday.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 29 W 1,798,674/110,119 US 533,502/20580 FR 129 654/13832 DK 6180/273 NYS 181 144/8627 Sixth day in row over 700 deaths in NYS; today 752. Slight decrease in cases hospitalized.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 30
4/13/20 World 1,889,508/117,471 US 568,835/22850 FR 132,891/14,593 DK 6358/285 NYS 195,031/10,056 First time over 10,000 deaths. NYC ? Slight decrease in cases, hospitalizations and ICU cases
When I was a kid, I used to go to the home of my father's mother and father for the Passover seder. The apartment where Grandma and Grandpa lived on Audubon Avenue and 181st Street in Upper Manhattan was packed with too many people. The seder itself was interminable and confusing, and the food was awful. My mother, who tended to be a snob anyway, felt that the company was beneath her. I was the oldest grandchild, and my grandparents adored me. But my mother's discomfort had rubbed off on me, and it was only years after my grandparents died that I appreciated that the seder was the closest I ever came to the warmth, diversity and controlled chaos that a vital family provides. Thanks to the virus, the zoom seder that we had on Saturday for 32 people, a cat and two puppies was the first time that this group of people had assembled. They were from the same core group that had been to the seder on Audubon Avenue sixty years ago, but now there were two more generations that had never seen Grandma and Grandpa's apartment. Many of us had never met each other, or hadn't seen each other in years. We were spread out all over the country-- New York, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, Washington DC, Connecticut, California. We ranged from 5 years old to 101. The seder was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was glorious. Awesome in the original sense of the word. As if we were all sitting on a soft, cloud-like cushion that stretched from one side of the country to the other. We were relaxed with each other, curious about each other, in love with each other. Thanks to Minnie and Bunya, my father's cousins, we listened to stories about the apartment on Audubon Avenue, but we also talked about what we were doing now, where we thought the country was heading. They were so attractive, so interesting, so intelligent! After the service, with 32 people at the virtual table, I expected a din of noise. Not at all. Everyone waited patiently for one speaker to finish before another speaker stepped in. No competition, no arguing. Just quiet awe. The evening went on for four hours. It was the most delicious Passover dinner I've ever tasted. My matzoh balls were as tightly packed as Grandma's, but smaller than the boulders that she'd made that sank directly to your feet. Lone and Dennis had never cooked for Passover, but the brisket and noodle pudding were brilliant. In the old days on Audubon Avenue, a few relatives commuting from Brooklyn or New Jersey had slept over at Grandma and Grandpa's place after the seder. Nobody from this seder wanted to go home either. Slowly, as each household vanished from the screen, I didn't feel bereft. I had rediscovered my family, and I'd sat in Grandpa's place at the head of the table.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 31
World 1,942,401/121,450 US 587,752/23,765 FR 136,779/14,902 DK 6502/279 NYS 195,655/10,251 778 deaths yesterday. NYC 7905 deaths attributed to NYC; another 3778 added today that apparently weren't counted before. Brings total NYC deaths to over 10,000.
Close to 2 million reported cases in world. Politics heating up. The Times writes a scathing article--https://www.nytimes.com/…/p…/coronavirus-trump-response.html Trump responds with a self-serving video, insists that the President's power over the country is "total." 10 states on east and west coasts plan their own gradual re-entry and insist that President's power is limited by 10th Amendment. Bernie officially endorses Biden, may help to unify party. We visited my son B's new townhouse in Albany. Towns along the way sad-looking, triste. This time the landscape looked like a science-fiction film: Will Smith or Tom Hanks about to step out of shadows and ask what we were doing there. Drivers along the way overly cautious or a little distracted; doesn't feel safe on the highway. Hard to be completely joyful in their house with masks on and seated six feet apart--a terrible aching feeling not to be able to hug B and his fiancee C. But they were totally cheerful; happiness has power, a protective force-field. Almost everybody in the street seemed to be keeping safe distance, though not everybody wore masks. A gaggle of teenagers ignored social distancing completely. They were age-appropriately defiant, but looked a little self-conscious about it. Starting to get a whiff of what it must be like to be in prison. The routine keeps you going but also makes you crazy, angry, withdrawn. It's hard to be creative; you may need at least the illusion of freedom, the sense that what you create will add something to a not-entirely hostile universe. My friend Betsy Hulick points out that Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in prison, but I always found the book cynical rather than funny. Note about "hunker down": "The exact source of 'hunker' is uncertain. It’s probably related to the Old Norse 'huka,' to crouch, with relatives in Middle Dutch, Middle Low German and the modern German 'hocken,' meaning 'to sit on one’s hams.' Although the specific phrase 'hunker down' is apparently a US invention, first appearing in print in 1902, 'hunker' by itself was originally Scots, first appearing in print in 1720." So the actual position of hunkering down-- to sit down on one's hams-- is every bit as uncomfortable as the hunkering-down that the virus is forcing us to do.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 32 4/15/20 World 2,023,616/128,882 US 614643/26112 FR 143,303/15729 DK 5681/309 NYS 213,779/11586 NYC 118902/? The President in one of his demented moods today, threatening to adjourn Congress and appoint officials to federal agencies whose nominations are stuck in committee. Criminally irrelevant. He is also stopping funding to W.H.O. as the US records the highest number of deaths in a day so far. Woke up this morning--or rather struggled up out of the miasma--thinking: how long can my body tolerate being afraid? This isn't healthy. My friend D seems to have some physical symptoms of fear, especially halting speech. I'm the same way. At times I choke on my words; they jam up in my throat like people jamming up the exits in the proverbial burning theater. Two subjects discussed a lot today--money, and the consequences of being in the "highest risk category." Both subjects filled with dread. The economy has to be going into a tailspin. All signs--mass unemployment, unpaid rents, closed businesses--point to it. If the dollar goes soft because of flooding the currency market with cash, won't that provoke global inflation? Why aren't economists talking about this? What about the stock market? Those of us who depend on it: do we sell now? Should we sit on the cash or invest in businesses ( Zoom, Netflix) that will prosper from the lockdown? Dizzying. And then the other subject of the day-- confinement for the next year or 18 months! I can't wrap my head around it. My dear friend Charlotte Strandgaard wrote an article recently for the Danish newspaper Politiken about never having felt so old as now, the sadness and anger of being put in the category of fragile, essentially useless people whom the rest of the society has to tolerate. Of course people will always be kind, as Wilfred Sheed titled his wonderful novel decades ago, but aren't they secretly feeling disdain and impatience? Today I felt burning envy toward younger people. THEY will go back to their lives, back to streets and stores and restaurants. They'll travel and play sports and go to school and touch each other, while WE will slink around cautiously, looking every which way for danger, if we even get to walk around at all. Of course it's no one's fault but the virus's. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 33 4/16/20
World 2,128,751/142,651 US 653,751/33434 FR 147 863/17167 DK 6879/321 NYS 218,707/18261
Although the news today is pretty grim--highest number of deaths in one day, etc.-- everyone so yearns for this to be over that they twist the bad news into hopeful news--the curve is flattening, etc. Even without the President's prompting, countries and states, even NYS, start to talk about modest restart plans. With all kinds of caveats, but the thrust is still upward and outward. The President turns this yearning into his usual solipsism, but he's hardly alone; protesters in several states are in the streets complaining about sheltering in place. I feel it myself. I want to get back to my life. I don't care if it's risky. (Of course I care, and I'll try not to take risks, but a hot little devil is inside me, and he's taunting me: Move your ass, show them that you still have balls.) Today I put the keys to my apartment back in my pocket. To state the screamingly obvious, the real issue is testing. There was a recent news item that a large number of pregnant women who were tested routinely proved to be positive but asymptomatic. This suggests that a large percentage of the population are positive without knowing it. Does this make them carriers? For sure. So to "open up" the country before having universal testing seems sadistic. Spent most of today staring out the window, wildly tense. Almost paralyzed. One tries so hard not to give in to the panic. Sometimes my defenses crumble, implode. I had a single moment where I wasn't looking to the immediate future--the very next moment-- with dread or impatience. For that moment I could actually see the tulips in the garden outside my window about to open. Impossible to sustain it for more than that moment. Slipped right back into the shit. What a luxury it seems now not to be afraid. My friend Gerald Busby, whose String Quartet 38 I'm trying to figure out how to upload to Facebook (it is as chilling as the virus), passes along useful advice if I could only apply it: I might have told you before about a life lesson I learned from Robert Altman concerning the use of energy generated by the most adverse circumstances. Instead of reacting emotionally, focus on the energy itself as raw material for creation. Get past your judgments about your discomfort or fear.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 34 4/17/20
World 2,178,149/145,329 US 675,640/34,522 FR165,027/17.926 DK 6879/321 NYS 226,198/16108
A poem popped into my head that I memorized when I was 14. It's from Kenneth Rexroth's translation of Tu Fu in 100 Poems from the Chinese (original Chinese compliments of Wei Gao): White birds over the gray river. Red flowers on the green hills. I watch the spring go by And wonder if I shall ever return home. 出自杜甫《绝句》（其二） 江碧鸟逾白，山青花欲燃。 今春看又过，何日是归年？ To me the poem used to be metaphorical, sentimental, like spring-fever; now the meaning is completely clear and literal. Hadn't been inside a store in a couple of weeks. Today went to the drugstore to pick up a prescription. Started to walk up and down the steep Peekskill hills but found I was either too tense or too out of shape to contemplate the walk back. Ended up losing my way, finding my way home and driving to the drugstore with Lone. The strangeness of sheltering in a place that I don't know at all--everything feels hostile. Walgreen's looked like it had been looted. Not all shelves were empty, but you could see that they hadn't had deliveries in days, and there was a feeling of emptiness. The people who worked there were young and at least trying to be cheerful; maybe they actually were, because the situation was special, a change from the routine. For me every move was difficult--from deciding whether to spray disinfectant on the credit card machine to opening the door with my elbow after putting Purell on my hands as I was leaving. I realized that the longer I stayed in isolation, the harder it was going to be to go back to the world; I had to practice being in the world. And I had to be aware that, Dennis and Lone's generosity notwithstanding, the fact that I wasn't in familiar surroundings was a significant burden. I have to try to make these surroundings at least a little more familiar.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 35 4/18/20 World 2,253,000+/153,631 US 717,825/34022 FR 111,821/19,323 DK 7242/346 NYS 236,743/13,362 (?) NYC 131,272/8632
Almost half the deaths in US are in NYS. Two thousand admittances to NYC hospitals per day. But death rate down from almost 800 to 540 in state yesterday/504 in city. A very dark, sober view of the possibilities for short and long-term recovery: https://www.nytimes.com/…/…/coronavirus-america-future.html… It says what continues to be unsayable: as of now there really isn't an end in sight. Spent a couple of hours walking and driving through the suburban countryside. First time I've driven in months. I love to drive. A way to get back some sense of power, as well as the pleasure of doing something easy well. I'm envious of the haircuts that TV personalities have been getting. Who gave Dr. Fauci, the dean of social distancing, a haircut: his wife? It looked a little amateurish. But Ari Melber of CNBC, who went from a beard to a major clipping this past week, definitely had a professional job. Reporter for the PBS Newshour ---- Nick Shifrin--was looking shaggy a while ago, then not. Were they breaking the rules? Lone cut my hair and Dennis's today. It was a gift. But then I started thinking about J, the guy who cuts my hair. That is what he does. He takes it very seriously, and executes with flair. His central activity and livelihood are gone for the foreseeable future. What about the salon where he works? Hard to imagine that it will open again soon--it's bustling, full of people touching each other. What happens to all those people running around gabbing and chatting and washing, curling, dyeing hair, cutting? It was like a Feydeaux comedy--people constantly in motion, talking to each other over their shoulders. Full of life, energy. I never appreciated it before. Who will pay the rent?
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 36 4/19/20 W 2.2. milion +/156,353 US 742,290/40,581 FR 111,821/19,323 DK 7,384/353 NYS 23,6763/13,362 NYC 131,273/8632 Over 40,000 dead in US.
Took the day off. First spring day warm enough to sit outside and read. Could feel the fear decreasing, body opening up. Activity in the street--men mowing grass, people laughing without sounding self-conscious. Good news--even if it's just warm weather or the Governor talking about flattening the curve while NYC Mayor DiBlasio warns about the ominous $8 billion shortfall--is as infectious as a good virus, a nice virus.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 37 4/20/20
World 2, 489,406/170,863 US 793,505/42604 FR 155.383/20265 DK 7700/364 NYS 253,060/18929
Single-day death rate doubled today in US. Spike in outbreaks in Boston and Detroit as daily death rate in NYC dipped below 500. Repeat or new outbreaks in Northern China, Japan, Singapore. Indications are that virus is spreading, but the pull to relax controls, open stores etc., is also mounting. Georgia reopens fitness centers, massage parlors, tattoo stores--the very kind of places that require physical contact. Feelings of helplessness and rage: how do I stop these assholes? The other day I described driving as the pleasure of doing an easy thing well. Now I see that the real pleasure of driving is controlling power--all that horse-power under the hood-- in a time when virtually all of the power is out of one's control. Went to a doctor today for an office procedure. Everyone in masks, and patients in waiting room pacing around, afraid for any parts of their bodies to touch the chairs or anything else. The nurse and doctor behind their masks were very nice, but I'm not used to reading just people's eyes. Were they as worried about me as their eyes looked? I hope not. As imperfect as it is to read people's expressions--Shakespeare's "there's no art to read the mind's complexion in the face"--we're going to have to learn a new, even worse way of guessing what people think. Starting to see news media taking food shortages seriously. Dumping of milk. Virus infection causing closing of meat-packing plants. Crops like lettuce and beans ploughed under because of lack of money to pay farm workers. Crops can't even be given away because of transportation costs. This has to get worse. Doesn't look like virus is mitigated by hot weather: outbreaks in India, Turkey, etc. Now greatest concern starts to be how we can literally survive until the vaccine or prophylactic pill is developed. In the case ofCOVID-19, development will have to proceed with extra caution, because apparently the virus has the property to react to some possible vaccines by making the disease worse.
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 38 4/21/20
W 2,515,731/172,465 US 795,602/43,177 FR 155,383/20,265 DK 7700/370 NYS 251,720/14,828 NYC 139,335/10,301
My friend C. tells me that this Journal has been too dark and depressing lately, that there are plenty of people around the country doing wonderful and selfless things, that the ones we should really be concerned about are not ourselves but younger people whose future is uncertain in all sorts of ways... and that for people over 65 this is going to last at least 18 months, and that going back to New York will not be an option. Hmm. I had to call the doctor today about a possible allergic reaction. I was amazed, almost offended, about how cheerful and unconcerned the nurse was. Didn’t she realize that this could be the virus too? That it can change into anything it wants to be? That it's everything unknown or unfamiliar, and the minute that you step out of your safe routine, it's waiting there for you? Today reminded me of rainy days in summer camp or at home where absolutely nothing was pressing or urgent. Nothing to achieve, complete against, be best at. Only the afternoon spreading before me, and the luxury of boredom. If one could let go of the virus for a moment, days like these could be as luxurious. My friend J in New York reports being in a subway car with a health-care worker. Says that she was extremely conscious about keeping distance from other people, and many of the other passengers seemed equally aware of staying away from her. This obsessive awareness of other people--how physically close they are, whether they're dangerous--will shape our perception for the foreseeable future. How bitchy we'll be to each other! This video of empty NY (thanks Madoro Smiley):
JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: DAY 39 4/22/20
World 2,635,306/182,363 US 848,994/47676 FR 158,877/21340 DK 7912/384 NYS 263,992/19,413
I feel that it's time to take a short break from this Journal. I need to do some reading--Thucydides's chapter on the plague, Camus's The Plague, Defoe's Journal, The Decameron-- to see what we can learn from past pandemics, and to get back to work on projects that have been languishing. It also feels like we've reached the end of the first stage of this experience. Not that we're ready to reopen anything, but that we've been forced to accept, consciously or unconsciously, that the plague is part of our lives. Now we have to start to look at what specific ways it is reshaping us. Thanks for reading and following. Please check back at this page from time to time. I'm sure I'll have a thought that needs to be recorded in this corner of cyberspace, which I'm grateful to Chris Merser and Frances Pearson for creating. I wrote a poem in college that ended with the line: "There must be love in sharing fear." I think that's what I've been trying to do.