I used to work at Urban Decision Systems with a Vice President named Jay W. McBride, whom I liked and respected. Once, when I complained about another VP, Jay said that he was a “sosh,” pronounced like the beginning of the word “social.” As Jay was a lifelong Mormon, I wondered if this was a term used in his background to describe people who were essentially social butterflies.
One thing I am not is a sosh. That’s why I did not find the Covid-19 quarantine particularly onerous. I made a point to contact my friends regularly over the phone, but I did not attend any super-spreader events frequented by people who could not stay away from large groupings of their social cohort.
By now, I and most of my friends have been vaccinated. (Martine continues to be a holdout, but, like me, she’s not a sosh.) I have visited with my good friends from San Pedro and Altadena, and look forward to re-establishing several other connections.
But will I ever attend a large party? Perhaps. If I do, I will probably arrive late and leave early, as is my wont. I derive little pleasure from talking in person to many people, particularly if they are strangers.
Marie NDiaye, Franco-Senegalese Writer and Playwright
In this year of the quarantine, I have found particular solace in reading writers that most people have never heard of before—and some that were new to me as well. The list is alphabetical by author, followed by the name of the book(s) I read in 2020:
Algren, Nelson (1909-1981). The Man with the Golden Arm. This novelist had a years-long relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who is also on this list.
Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. A wonderful nonfiction book primarily about the French and German Existentialist philosophers from Husserl to Sartre.
Beauvoir, Simone de (1908-1986). The Mandarins. A powerful novel about the French postwar existentialists.
Collins, Wilkie (1824-1889). No Name and A Rogue’s Life. Not as well known as Dickens, but I think a better writer. His best novel is The Woman in White.
Dourado, Autran (1926-2012). Pattern for a Tapestry. This Brazilian writer from Minas Gerais is a real find.
Hrabal, Bohumil (1914-1997). I Served the King of England. I wonder why this great Czech novelist never won the Nobel Prize. Consistently great.
Marra, Anthony. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The youngest writer (only 36) on the list, but shows promise of great things to come.
Modiano, Patrick. Dora Bruder. Winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. He is one of my favorite living novelists.
NDiaye, Marie. The Cheffe and My Heart Hemmed In. Winner of the Prix Goncourt in France. Clearly deserves the Nobel as well.
Neruda, Jan (1834-1891). Prague Tales. The Czech writer whose last name Pablo Neruda hijacked for himself.
Portis, Charles (1933-2020). Gringos. I really admire this Arkansas novelist’s work. Best known for True Grit, which is also worth reading.
Stasiuk, Andrzej. Fado. Hurry up and translate more of this great Polish writer’s work!
Westover, Tara. Educated. A nonfiction autobiographical book about growing up in an Idaho survivalist household.
Wright, Austin Tappan (1883-1931). Islandia. A novel in a genre by itself: A realistic fantasy novel set in a nonexistent Southern Hemisphere country.
As you can see, this list skips around the world and across two centuries.
Kind of Looks Like Mines Intended to Explode on Contact with Ships
Since March 15, I have maintained strict quarantine—with a sole exception. Late in October, I visited my brother in the Coachella Valley. Although I have maintained telephone contact with my friends, I have not seen any of them for many months.
So how does one survive the dreaded ’Rona?
Very simple: Take yourself out of circulation. To the maximum extent possible, restrict your contact with friends and family to the telephone, e-mail, and—if you are so inclined—letters.
Let’s face it: There will be many more deaths and illnesses before this thing mutates or dies off.
This is a great time to see all the great movies you’ve missed (on TV and your computer), and to read great books. It’s also a good time to learn how to cook for yourself. Food that is delivered to your home is usually tepid at best.
Wear a mask when there is any chance of talking to someone in person, whether a neighbor or a grocery cashier. If you feel that the requirement to wear a mask is an infringement on your liberty, be ready to kill off your friends, acquaintances, family, and possibly yourself. Because there is a very real possibility that you might wind up a mass murderer through sheer idiocy.
And, if you see Jacob Marley’s face on your door knocker, run like hell!
Martine Sitting in a Corvette at the Automobile Driving Museum
I was looking at the last photographs I took before the coronavirus quarantine slammed the door on our whole way of life. It was on February 7 that I returned from Mexico, having heard from the news on Al Jazeera about the strange flu in Wuhan, China.
Between February 7 and March 15, when the quarantine was fully in place, Martine and I visited the Andrés Pico Adobe in the San Fernando Valley, Heritage Park in Santa Fe Springs, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge, the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo (see photo above), and finally, just as the iron virus curtain was descending, a folk dance concert at the Magyar Ház given by the Karpatók Hungarian Folk Dance Ensemble. That last event was on March 15. I knew we were taking a chance by attending what could easily have become a “super spreader” event, but fortunately didn’t. It was, like all their events, top notch.
The Oak Forest at Descanso Gardens
The quarantine has taken a particular toll on Martine. Although I am a flaming Libtard, Martine listens to right-wing talk radio and complains incessantly about having to wear a mask. She does so whenever she enters a public building, but refuses to wear them on her daily walks to nowhere. She has been hurt by our inability to go anywhere because restaurants, parks, and museums are closed, and it becomes difficult to find a public bathroom that is still open.
Sometimes, I think many of the restrictions regarding Covid-19 are imposed because there are so many scofflaws who think that wearing a mask at all is an imposition on what they feel are their rights (pronounced “rats” with a Southern drawl). Such as the right to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater or take a loaded AR-15 to Sunday School. In the end, we all suffer because of a hardcore cadre of jerks with which our country is so amply provided.
During this hyperextended quarantine, I continue to make interesting discoveries. Late one night, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) put on a double bill of noir films from Nikkatsu Studios.
Nikkatsu? I had heard of Toho, Shochiku, Diaei, and Tohei … but never Nikkatsu. After a quick look at Google, I found that Nikkatsu was actually the oldest studio in Japan, founded all the way back in 1912, three years before D.W. Griffith filmed Birth of a Nation.
I began to look at I Am Waiting (1957), but as the hour was late and I was tired, I reluctantly prepared for sleep.
But then, I discovered that the TCM website has a Watch Now option. When you select Watch Movies, you have available to you virtually all the recently shown films on the channel, including cartoons and shorts. The only requirement is that you subscribe to a service on your TV that carries the TCM channel: There is a login required.
A Scene from A Colt Is My Passport (1967)
I was delighted to find that both I Am Waiting and A Colt Is My Passport were available through the website. Thereupon I watched both films and was delighted that I persevered in searching them out. Not only that, but I bought the Criterion Collection’s Nikkatsu Noir series of five films, which included the above titles but three others that I plan to watch in the weeks to come.
Film noir has traveled from the United States to France (the films of Jean-Pierre Melville), England (the original Get Carter with Michael Caine), and Japan.
This may sound strange to you, but I am surviving the rigors of self-quarantine because I am good at lying to myself.
I have on occasion taken some longish flights to Europe and South America. The ones to Europe are particularly problematical because I arrive early in the morning after a night that has lasted for only a few hours. I know that if I drop into bed upon check-in at my hotel, I will awake while it is still light; and I won’t be able to go to sleep until the next morning.
So what do I do?
First of all, I pretend to myself during the flight that I am somehow outside of time, and that during the flight, time has no meaning.
Most important, I set my watch to the time zone of my destination. Nobody else I know does this: They insist on holding on to the time zone of their city of origin.
When I arrive, I stay awake until it is a reasonable bedtime in my destination.
When I went to Iceland, for example, I arrived in June—when the sun doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. I ate extra meals, went on a walking tour of Reykjavík, and finally collapsed in bed while the sun was still up around midnight. I woke up refreshed at an acceptable time the next morning.
So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus? Fortunately, Martine and I are retired, so I could pretend that this whole period of the outbreak is like a long flight to nowhere.
I have in my apartment several thousand books as well as hundreds of films on DVD. With my subscription to Spectrum Cable, I have access to hundreds of films for no additional cost using their On Demand service. Plus: As a member of Amazon Prime, I have access to thousands of other films.
So on my “flight” to nowhere during this seemingly endless quarantine, I am reading 12-18 books a month as well as seeing 25 or more feature films a month. (And in between reading and film viewing, I do all the cooking and go out for walks.)
I realize I would be in a radically different situation if I had to worry about a job, but fortunately I don’t. I have to worry that that madman in the White House may decide to cancel Social Security or destroy the value of the American dollar, but other than that I am not dependent on the workplace—though I am affected when restaurants are shuttered, museums and libraries closed, and so on.
There is an 1884 novel by a French writer named Joris-Karl Huysmans called Against Nature (in French À Rebours) about a dilettante names Jean des Esseintes who, instead of actually going on a vacation, does an armchair traveler “staycation” and is happy about it. The epigraph to the novel is a quote from the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck:
“I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time…though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.”
During my months-long quarantine, I have been sustained by five things:
My relationship with Martine
Playing chess with the computer
Watching movies on TV and my computer
That last item deserves some explanation. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I never was able to give it the attention it deserved. When I was working, I cooked good food, but I shied away from recipes that required some sophistication and a lot of time. Now that I am retired and quarantined, I am able to take the time to make some really good meals.
Mostly for Martine’s benefit, I got my hands on a cookbook by a convicted mafioso, Henry Hill, featuring the Italian cooking of the New York/New Jersey area: The Wiseguy Cookbook. Although Martine was born in France, she was mostly raised in Northern New Jersey (in Oceanport). As a child, it was New Jersey Italian food that she loved most. That was before she came out to Los Angeles and fell for Hungarian food.
For myself, I have become more interested in the vegetarian cuisine of India. Fortunately, Youtube has some excellent and very authentic recipes by Indians, Pakistanis, and others featuring Indian cuisine. This week, I made the following:
Manjula presents us here with a recipe for Chick Pea Pulav (aka Chole Biryani). The followed the recipe exactly, except that I added half a chopped onion and some extra hot Indian red chile powder. The only change I would suggest is to use one cup of water rather than a cup and a half. The dish is superb.
Fortunately, there is a nearby Indian foods store in Culver City called Indian Sweets and Spices. In better times, there is a little café on the premises with vegetarian-only curries; but there is also an excellent selection of teas and such hard-to-find items as mango powder, foenugreek leaves, garlic/ginger paste, and asafoetida.
Let me start by saying that I am no Pollyanna-ish prognosticator of Good News. The worldwide COVID-19 plague has wounded all economies to varying degrees, some of which may not return to “normal” for decades. I cannot help but think that most Americans in flyover country think that all the government has to do is flick a switch for us to return to the good old days before March 2020. I for one do not think it’ll be that easy.
What will inevitably happen is that the plague will settle most heavily on states which have gone off social distancing and quarantine too early. The people that Trump is most trying to help—his supporters in the South and Midwest—will die by the thousands, if not tens of thousands. Any attempt to return to “normal” too quickly will re-energize the plague as people go back to being in close contact with one another.
The governors of states like New York and California are for a more gradual approach. States with anti-science GOP governors, like Florida and Georgia, will suffer the consequences disproportionately.
First, my apologies for hijacking a photo from the University of California at Santa Barbara website. Secondly, I didn’t do several years of graduate study in film history and criticism without it having a lasting influence on me.
While Martine has been taking long walks to no particular destination (the destinations are all closed, anyway) and noting the takeover of the streets of L.A. by bums, I have been reading and watching a ton of movies. In twenty-six days this month, I have watched twenty-five movies:
Emerald Forest, The
Menzies, William Cameron
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Hobbit, The: An Unexpected Journey
Hobbit, The: The Desolation of Smaug
Hobbit, The: The battle of the Five Armies
Quantum of Solace
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Sacketts, The: Episode 1 [Made for TV]
Sacketts, The: Episode 2 [Made for TV]
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK
Robson, Mark/Val Lewton
Isle of the Dead
Sword of Vengeance
Baby Cart at the River Styx
Color of Pomegranates, The [Sayat Nova]
More than half of them, I really liked. Those are noted with an asterisk just before the title of the film. Predictably, most were either American film noir productions or Japanese jidai-geki (samurai films). A few were outright dogs.
As long as the quarantine/social-distancing rules remain in place, I will probably continue to see at least one film per day. Some of them are on DVD from Netflix; some from Turner Classic Movies (TCM); others from Spectrum Cable’s On Demand service.
There Is Only One Film I Know About Quarantining from the Plague
In the early 1940s, a Hollywood movie producer named Val Lewton (his real name was Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon) was responsible for a handful of great horror films in which the effects were more psychological than crude, which placed him pretty much in a one-man category.
Today, I saw (for the nth time) his film Isle of the Dead (1945), set on a strange Greek island during the First Balkan War (1912-13). Boris Karloff plays the Greek General Nikolas Pherides who, together with an American journalist, rows to an offshore island to visit the grave of his wife. He finds that her grave had been broken into and her body stolen. Worse yet, he lands on the island only to find that one of the guests in the house where he is staying has died of the plague.
Karloff and the other people on the island must quarantine until the wind changes. Once the hot, dry sirocco wind begins to blow, that particular strain of the plague dies off.
Boris Karloff as General Pherides, “The Watchdog”
The psychological element introduced by Lewton is a superstition of a vampire-like creature called a vorvolaka which is promulgated by a Greek peasant woman named Kyra serving in the house. Karloff, who prides himself by his nickname of “The Watchdog,” buys into the possibility of the truth of this superstition, blaming a young serving woman who is enjoying rubicund good health for being a vorvolaka.
The film is a scant 72 minutes long and would be an excellent choice for a Quarantining-at-Home Film Festival, even if it is one lone title. There is also an Elia Kazan film called Panic in the Streets (1950) which involves the plague but has no claustrophobic quarantining.