Plague Diary 25: False Dawn

A New Dawn Is Approaching … But Look Out for Storms

Yes, the authorities are gradually releasing us from our long quarantine; but we’re not out of the woods yet. After the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic, the United States entered into a ten-year period of prosperity, until the Crash of 1929 put the kibosh on that. It would be nice to think that everything will be hunky-dory within a few weeks or so. Fat chance.

Except for one thing: That man in the White House. He was personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, and he is itching to send thousands more into the next world. He continues to be supported of legions of bitter-enders who will support him regardless what he does, because he is one of them—a bona fide bad ass. If Trump should be reelected this November, I think the United States is in for it. In the end, I even think there will be another attempt at secession, and maybe that’s what it’ll take in the long run. The bad-asses will want to set up their own New Revised Confederate States of America.

As I look into the future, I have no pollyanna visions of everything coming together in a great cumbia of toleration. The battle lines are being drawn, and they look pretty hard and fast to me.

 

 

Serendipity: Waiting To Be Annihilated

American Writer Herman Melville (1819-1891)

On November 20, 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne met with Herman Melville in England. In his English Notebooks, Hawthorne describes his friend as having “by way of baggage, the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night-shirt and a tooth-brush…. [H]e is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.” He goes on to describe their meeting:

He stayed with us from Tuesday till Thursday; and, on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated”; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

 

 

 

A Creative Drought

Poster for Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970)

In the first twenty-two years of his film career, Akira Kurosawa had directed twenty-three films, many of them internationally recognized as classics. His career has another twenty-eight years to run, but he was to complete only seven more films.

After the success of Red Beard (1965), the Japanese film industry began to show weakness—a weakness that was to lead to the fall of the hitherto successful studio system in Tokyo within a few years, as a giant real-estate bubble was to make the land on which the studios sat more valuable than anything possible at the box office. Kurosawa turned to the United States, working first on a project call Runaway Train, which was never made. Then he was to direct the Japanese side of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) from which he was fired for not seeing eye-to-eye with the producers at 20th Century Fox.

Scene from Dodes’ka-Den (1970)

Not having completed a film in five and a half years, Kurosawa was hurting. So he picked up a book of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto entitled A Town Without Seasons. With a shooting schedule of only twenty-eight days, Dodes’ka-Den (1970) was Kurosawa’s first film in color.

Although it opened to worldwide critical praise, the film bombed in Japan, leaving its director so despondent that he attempted to commit suicide by slashing his wrists. I happen to think the film is beautiful, continuing the director’s exploration of the humanity of the poor begun with Red Beard. The name of the film is based on the sound made by a teenaged boy pretending to be a trolley working its way through a slum that resembles a city dump. Around him are stories of other residents of the slum as they deal with poverty, ill-health, crime, starvation, and even love. It is a film that made me feel good, such that I will try to find a DVD of it to purchase.

Film Director Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

Although Kurosawa is not my favorite Japanese director (I would pick either Kenji Mizoguchi or Yasujiro Ozu for that), I love seeing his films again and again—and his films are more readily available than those of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

 

Plague Diary 24: Zoom, Babies, and Barkies

Boredom Times Infinity

There are a number of stereotypes emerging from our months’ long quarantine: Zoom images of not altogether with it participants, small children, and pets—just to name a few. Being retired and not involved in alcoholism or recreational drugs, I am not into Zoom. There are zero circumstances which would call for a number of my friends and acquaintances being dragooned into meeting with me. Besides, I don’t have a camera on my PC at present. If I decide to get Skype or some other video telephony application, I might change my mind. Otherwise, nyet.

Pets and Babies Do Nothing for Me

It seems that most quarantiners have an irresistible urge to feature their pets and small children. That would have meant something to me decades ago, when I wanted to join that particular club. But having my pituitary gland and the chromophobe adenoma that devoured it removed at the age of twenty-one, I became ineligible to have a baby that looked anything like me. Nowadays, when I think of babies, I think of overfilled diapers. And I become comically allergic when I spend more than a couple hours with a dog or cat.

I would very much like to see my friends, but fortunately I am not going crazy from isolation. It seems that I am well-prepared for quarantining:

  • I have a library of several thousand books
  • I own hundreds of DVDs of classic movies, foreign and domestic
  • My cable TV gives me access to hundreds of free movies each week
  • I like to cook
  • I have a telephone

So I don’t have to shove pets and poopy diapers in your face, and I don’t need to appear on Zoom wearing nothing below my navel. You might call it the joys of sublimation.

Plague Diary 23: An Etymological Curiosity

A Look Back to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

I was scanning the channels early this evening when I made a surprising discovery. There seems to be a term from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic that has become part of our language. The “crawl” on one of the news stations casually mentioned that the term “slacker” derived from scofflaws during the pandemic that refused to wear face masks.

According to the Saturday Evening Post website, then, as now, there was an organized resistance to wearing masks:

[T]he Influenza pandemic of 1918, triggered a comparable patchwork of ordinances and ensuing economic fallout. Some Americans’ reactions a century ago took similar form, particularly a group of fed up San Franciscans who called themselves the “Anti-Mask League.” Although San Francisco saw one of the worst U.S. outbreaks of the pandemic, these dissidents opposed orders from the city’s Board of Health not because of the economic implications, but because they saw it as their right to walk the city maskless. Besides, they didn’t think the things were working anyway.

The more things change, the more hey remain the same. The members of the Anti-Mask League were referred to as slackers.

From the Enid Daily Eagle of September 25, 1918

There are, of course, some differences between the coronavirus and the outbreak following the First World War. All I can do is re-iterate the warning from the newspaper clip above:

Don’t get “scared.”

 

 

Weasel Words

To Be Sure!

One result of quarantining in place is that I have been exposed to a good deal more television than usual. Watching the ads on my favorite programs, when combined with my experience doing marketing for a software company, I have become acutely aware of advertisers’ practice of being so overwhelmingly positive as to be prevaricating.  I myself have produced numerous ads for the software products of Urban Decision Systems. The pressure was always on for me to omit anything that could give rise to a negative customer response.

Every day I see ads that are so clearly n the bait-and-switch category: They quote prices that are as low as $9.95, or starting at $9.95, or “as little as” $9.95. Or the price contains certain additional features in selected areas. What do you want to bet that those selected areas are ZIP codes with no residential or business population? Call the phone number attached to the ad, and you will see that the come-on is just a starting point to products and services that cost much more.

You’ve Undoubtedly Noticed the Literal Puffery of Food Ads

Because I tend to watch programs geared to older viewers, I am bombarded by health ads of dubious provenance. Everything either has copper woven into some sort of brace, or there are Medicare-supplemental insurance that includes free meals and other services that I doubt would be normally provided. Colonial Penn will offer to pay for my funeral for a cost “starting at” $9.95 a month, even if I have advanced leprosy or ebola. And the price will never go up.

I know that most programming is paid for by advertising, but I wonder how many viewers like me cringe when they see the pitches aimed at them. How many TV ads have I responded to over the last ten years? Zero. Zip. None.

 

Three Tigers

Wild Bengal Tiger (India)

Nobody does poems about tigers better than Jorge Luis Borges—with the sole exception of William Blake. Here is a poem translated by Alastair Reid entitled “The Other Tiger”:

The Other Tiger

And the craft createth a semblance.
—Morris, Sigurd the Volsung (1876).

I think of a tiger. The half-light enhances
the vast and painstaking library
and seems to set the bookshelves at a distance;
strong, innocent, new-made, bloodstained,
it will move through its jungle and its morning,
and leave its track across the muddy
edge of a river, unknown, nameless
(in its world, there are no names, nor past, nor future
only the sureness of the passing moment)
and it will cross the wilderness of distance
and sniff out in the woven labyrinth
of smells the smell peculiar to morning
and the scent of deer, delectable.
Among the slivers of bamboo, I notice
its stripes, and I have an inkling of the skeleton
under the magnificence of the skin, which quivers.
In vain, the convex oceans and the deserts
spread themselves across the earth between us;
from this one house in a remote lost seaport
in South America, I dream you, follow you,
oh tiger on the fringes of the Ganges.

Afternoon creeps in my spirit and I keep thinking
that the tiger I am conjuring in my poem
is a tiger made of symbols and of shadows,
a sequence of prosodic measures,
scraps remembered from encyclopedias,
and not the deadly tiger, the luckless jewel
which in the sun or the deceptive moonlight
follows its paths, in Bengal or Sumatra,
pf love, of indolence, of dying.
Against the symbolic tiger I have planted
the real one, it whose blood runs hotly,
and today, 1959, the third of August,
a slow shadow spreads across the prairie,
but still, the act of nameing it, of guessing
what is its nature and its circumstances
creates a fiction, not a living creature,
not one of those who wander on the earth.

Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system and arrangement of human language,
and not the tiger of the vertebrae
which, out of reach of all mythology,
paces the earth. I know all this, but something
drives me to this ancient and vague adventure,
unreasonable, and I still keep on looking
throughout the afternoon for the other tiger,
the other tiger which is not in this poem.