The Plague Notebook:  How to Be Happy

How to be happy isn’t really my field.  How not to be anxious is my  area of expertise.

Anxiety stings all of us in this time of the virus, but there are healing  balms. For instance, it is National Poetry Month, and it is delightful to read a poem a day, even though it might not cure all our dark thoughts.   My favorite American poet is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in my hardcover copy of her Collected Poems,  there is still a  flower pressed on the page of my favorite poem, “Recuerdo..”

Here is the first of the three stanzas of “Recurerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon


Edna St. Vincent Millay, ’17

 I cannot tell you how remarkable and romantic I found this poem.  Emotionally I knew just how she felt, though I had never had the opportunitiy to ride back and forth all night on a ferry.  I concluded that I lived in the wrong part of the country for that romantic gesture, and would have to move to New York (which turned out to be very expensive, unless I wanted to live in a meatlocker). In the midwest I have happily ridden in a canoe, a rowboat (“Put your backs into it, lassses!”),  and a paddleboat.  None of these experiences belonged in poetry. 

After a non-poetic mini- breakdown  today,  I  went out to look at the gibbous moon.  It must be the first time I’ve looked at the moon since last fall.  There it was, glorious, pocked and shining.  “If only we could go to the moon,” I said, but Mr. Nemo reminded me, “We already have.” “No,  don’t mean that, I mean us. ”  But he was right:  this was our trip, gazing at a gibbous moon in a clear blue sky.

Actually, I feel claustrophobic just thinking about space travel, though Mr. Nemo assures me it would take only about four days. That doesn’t sound so bad, but wearing a space suit might be.  

Earth has plenty of compensations, after all.  “Who but God could make that rainbow?”  a woman once dreamily asked while we sheltered inside HyVee waiting for the rain to stop.  The rain drizzled to a stop, and an  incredible rainbow suddenly arched above the hill.  For a moment I understood what she meant about God.

That’s how I feel about the moon, actually. Who made that gorgeous thing?  But I’m not sure which god, if it was a god.  It was doubltless born out of chaos, like the Earth and the sky in Ovid’s creation myth , but I’d have to check to see where the moon comes in.  Anyway, the goddess Artemis/Diana is associated with the moon.  I’ll have to settle for her role, since I’m too tired to check my Metamorphoses.

I wonder, however, what god would bring a plague.  Actually, gods do behave badly in myths, and quite often they are unreasonable and violent in the Bible.  

Here’s what’s happening in the U.S. during our more-or-less month of lockdown.  You do your daily routine, and then you panic. It’s as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. The day turns sour when you listen to the governor’s daily  Coronavirus update.  You are horrified by the escalation of  cases of infection  and the death toll.  We cry and feel angry and indignant.

But there is one endless source of joy.   Exercise! It makes all the difference. Going outside, whether to pace or take a walk or run is therapeutic, because, believe me, being  trapped indoors worsens the sense of helplessness.  And if you prefer to stay home, do stretching exercises for at leas 10 minutes.  It helps.  My shoulders have been very sore:   I wouldn’t miss my workout for anything.  It gets all the kinks out of my tense muscles.

This is a challenging time,  different from anything I’d anticipated.   I thought people would face more virulent illnesses and violent storms by 2030, the arbitrary date for the end of possibility for  climate change reversal.  Surely these topics will be addressed on Earth Day, April 22, though obviously it will be idone ndoors.  And let us hope we are much closer to finding  a cure to Covid-19. then  

Cheers!  This will pass.

Stay well!

The Best of Autofiction:  Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle

Remember the “Me Generation”?  I do, just barely.  In 1976 Tom Wolfe wrote a cover story about the “The Me Decade,” and Baby Boomers were known, if briefly, as the “Me Generation.” 

Nobody likes a narcissist, hence the ambivalence toward autofiction, which knows no generational divide. (We are all “me.”) Of course Proust and Norman Mailer wrote autofiction before the term was coined, but Karl Ove  Knausgaard is the sovereign of autofiction. And though most critics love Knausgaard’s six-volume masterpiece, My Struggle, some are indignant because Knausgaard (a GenXer) changed no names in his detailed account of his life and relationships. 

I had no clue what autofiction was when I began to read it.  Immediately I was intrigued by the fast-paced novels.   Knausgaard is sharp, observant, absorbing, mercurial, likable, and unbelievably fun to read.  And the narrator Karl Ove is a sympathetic, likable character, though he has some exasperating characteristics.  Oddly, I am reminded of Tolstoy’s masterpieces, not because Knausgaard writes on a large scale–it is utterly personal–but  because he draws you into his personal novels in the same indefinable way.  

It matters very little which volume you begin with, because the books are not chronological.  In the first book, we meet narrator Karl Ove as an adult, balancing writing, relationships, and child care.  I posted about it at my old blog here.

I just finished Book 4, set in the 1980s, when  Karl Ove, 18, takes a job as an assistant teacher in a tiny fishermen’s village. He doesn’t take teaching seriously, and plans to stay only one year.   Determined to be a writer, he got his start as the music critic for a small newspaper when he was still at gymnas (secondary school).  And now he spends weekends writing  short stories. The trouble is: alcohol. 

Is Karl Ove an alcoholic?  He has a charming personality, and makes friends easily.  But he drinks so much at parties he has blackouts.  He doesn’t consider this a problem, and is furious when he oversleeps and the headmaster comes to his house to wake him up for work. Karl Ove thinks missing work because he is hungover is a man’s choice.  Knausgaard also writes of Karl Ove’s years at gymnas (high school), when he also loved being drunk, and drank so much he allowed friends to trash his mother’s house.  All signs of alcoholism…

He also constantly broods about sex.  If only he could get a girlfriend…

All right, perhaps there are too many  drinking scenes and and brooding-about-sex scenes.  At the same time, life is repetition, and the repetition  here is a simulation of  real life.  That is the way we live: repetition.  And these are great books.

Becoming Your Masked Overly-Protective Mom

They lost me at “PLEATS!”

Now is the time to become your overly-protective mom. 

“Have you got your gear?”  I call out to Mr. Nemo.

He does, though every day there’s something new.  The CDC has announced that all Americans should wear masks in public.

I’ve heard for weeks that the stores are sold out of masks.  If that is the case, where do we get them? Back in the day, Mom would get in the car and drive to Sears, Montgomery Ward, or Kmart for every last-minute need–even during flu season. Everyone is woefully unprepared for Covid-19.

I read in the newspaper that women volunteers are sewing masks for the health care workers. The techs and nurses in the Covid-19 test drive-thru seem to be wearing astronaut costumes, but my heart stopped with worry when I saw them.  They are  our heroes, and if anyone needs masks, they DO.

But now  I am expected to sew masks.  My God, am I Little House on the Prairie?  Should I risk my life at Hobby Lobby to buy needles and thread?  And am I supposed to tear up sheets with my teeth?  

 Mom and I didn’t sew, and despised the jumper I was forced to make for home ec.  We–Mom, Grandmother, and I working together — got a B.  And then went to Sears and bought an adorable readymade one.

Do you ever feel you can’t disinfect another doorknob?  And are you ditzily squirting Disinfectant of the Day (Windex or Clorox or whatever is in the cupboard)  on faucets, handles, tables, light switches, or whatever is in sight at the moment?  

I run a (reasonably) tight lockdown, but excuse me while I dump out my drawers to see if I can find a needle and thread. 

Let’s hope the stores get a shipment of masks.

Nostalgia for the Common Cold

For years we were beleagured by the common cold.  We caught them often when we were students, and later in our teaching days.  There is no question:  students are grubby.  A friend in high school  once cracked me up by saying, “If you’re doing it right, you don’t have to wash your hands.” In those days we rinsed our hands cursorily, but the powdered soap in restrooms didn’t come into play much until college (“It abrades our hands!”).  And washing hands didn’t become a serious thing  until the signs saying EMPLOYEES MUST WASH THEIR HANDS cropped up in every public restroom.

At a converted depot some years ago,  we read our first sign about singing “Happy Birthday” twice while you wash your hands.  We washed our hands thoroughly, though not for two rounds.   And then a few years ago, I  began to take fewer long bike rides, mainly because of sanitation issues in the few public restrooms on the trails.  Am I a sissy or simply a seer?

Can you be nostalgic for the common cold?  The common cold is grim , but it is preferable to Covid-19–and there’s no comparison, I know.  And yet there’s no cure for the common cold, just as there’s none for the coronavirus. In Carolyn See’s literary apocalyptic novel, Golden Days (which I wrote about here), the heroine’s best friend  impatiently taps her fingers on the nose of a man with a cold, and the snot flies out. He is cured.   I once tried tapping my sinuses once, but it didn’t work.  Where are the magic healers

Who gets a cold in literature?  I wonder.

In the  modern era, we turn to anicent measures:  we combine Seneca’s stoicism (“Avoid the crowd”) with old-fashioned medical advice (“Wash your hands”).

Let’s all stay well and practice social distancing!

Pestilence Pots, Literary P.I.s, & Sara Paretsky’s “Dead Land”

“Carriers are all we can be! La di da di de-e-e!”

Oh my God, not another family of pestilence pots!

And, yes, they’re barreling right toward you, without a thought of social distancing.

They put everybody at risk, by wrongly thinking they are immune, and not worrying that their children may be carriers (or become infected themselves).  

Perhaps a restriction on “family hours” would help.  Meanwhile, we can’t give them the peace sign, because they’re ignoring the health of the citizens of Planet Earth.

WHAT TO READ.  Are you a fan of P.I. fiction?   During the plague, I recommend losing yourself in a good detective novel.  The award-winning Sara Paretsky has a brilliant new novel, Dead Land, the nineteenth in the V. I. Warshawski series.

 V.I. Warshawski is a Chicago lawyer-turned-P.I., with a social conscience as well as detective skills.  She embarks on chilling adventures as she investigates violent crimes that are often linked to corporate corruption.  V.I. is far from ladylike:  she goes running with her two big dogs, which she shares with her 90-year-old neighbor, is an amateur climber, and seems to know everything about street fighting and guns.  Paretsky’s descriptions of V.I’s  legwork, risky interventions, and investigations of the rich and powerful  will transport you completely into this well-plotted mystery.

In the opening chapter,  V.I. and her goddaughter, Bernie, a university soccer star,  encounter a homeless woman who is playing a haunting song on a toy piano.  Bernie recognizes this woman as Lydia Zamir, a classically-trained musician whose songs about social issues were very popular wth the young, until Lydia disappeared four years ago after her Latino husband was killed in a mass massacre at a music festival in Kansas. 

V.I. connects Lydia’s  plight to two murders and the redevelopment of a park on the South side of Chicago. V.I. also takes a dangerous trip to Kansas, Lydia’s birthplace, after Lydia disappears a second time.   Plain,  brisk writing, and an unputdownable plot.

If you have other P.I. novels to recommend, I want to know!

Eclectic Lockdown Notes: A Gathering of Dogs &  Sigrid Undset’s “The Cross”

They can’t wait to get back to the dog park!

Coronavirus is worse than the plague.  I don’t mean literally;  I mean from our perspective. This is the plague we know.  This is the plague we cannot quite understand.  This is the plague that has fragmented our world.  And much of what we know about the plague is from novels like Camus’s The Plague and the Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s  The Cross, the third novel in her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  We never thought such an untreatable virus would happen here.

There are more cases of Covid-19 every day.  And so we practice social distancing, and wash our hands till they’re chapped. And yet who would think coronavirus threatens on a lovely spring day?  The sun is shining, the weather is mild, and the dogs are having the time of their life, because they’re going on walks constantly. The dog parks are closed, because dog parks mean A GATHERING OF DOGS.  (And humans, too, that’s the problem.). But it is a pleasure to see the dogs on their leisurely walks.  

I am not reading about the plague,  though I am thinking about getting a dog.  (Pet adoptions are up.) Still, I highly recommend  Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Unset’s masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  Set in the Middle Ages,  this Norwegian bildungsroman  takes us from Kristin’s childhood in the 14th century to her death in the plague era.  Undset’s lyrical style subtly mimics certain cadences of  medieval lit,  especially in Charles Archer’s 1920s translation.  The 1990s translation by Tina Nunnallly is in more modern English.  I have read and enjoyed both.

The first two books, The Wreath and The Wife (in Archer’s translation they are called The Bridal Wreath and The Wife of Husaby), tell the story of Kristin’s  forbidden love affair with Erlend, an elegant but careless man of noble family, and their difficult marriage, because Erlend has a bad reputation after living for 10 years with a married woman, has neglected his estate, and been generally indiscreet, especially in politics.  And Kristin, who is constantly pregnant and ill, must restore and run the estate.  She suffers much in her marriage, but her religion saves her.

We don’t get to the plague until the third book, The Cross, when Kristin, who has become increasingly religious since her marriage, goes on a  pilgrimage.  She is in a convent when the plague strikes, and she and the nuns are exposed as they care for the sick.  

Here is a particularly dark passage. Don’t read this if you’re not up to it! 

Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time.  No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone’s memory…  It was as if no living soul dared to hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish. 

My recommendation is that you read the first books of Kristin Lavransdatter and save The Cross for later–might as well wait till after the virus!

Lockdown 2020: “Decameron” to “War and Peace” & Reading Aloud

Vonnegut is great for reading aloud.

Everyone listens to audiobooks these days.  In fact, it’s hard to find a time when we’re not plugged into something. A few years ago a blogger wrote about listening to audiobooks with her boyfriend.  That’s rather sweet, but it’s even nicer to read books aloud with your boyfriend.

It used to be a cheap evening in for us, and now it still is:  plus, now we have t to stay home.  You don’t have to devote a lot of time to the project.  Reading a chapter or two every day is a pleasure.  Any genre you like, though we tend to stick to short books.  I recommend Kurt Vonnegut.


100 Days of Decameron

Anna Barker, a professor at the Univeristy of Iowa, will lead a discussion of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron on Twitter starting on April 1.  She will be using the Project Gutenberg edition translated by J. M. Rigg.

She writes,

As the Great Plague, known as Black Death, was devastating Europe in the middle of the 14th century, Giovanni Boccaccio was writing a book of unparalleled wit and imagination to help rally the sagging spirit of humanity. Written between 1348 and 1352, The Decameron takes place in a Tuscan villa where seven young women, Pampinea, Filomena, Neifile, Fiammetta, Elissa, Lauretta, and Emilia, and three young men, Filostrato, Dioneo, and Panfilo, are self-quarantined while the plague is ravaging Florence. Being young and of active disposition, they stave off boredom by establishing a routine – every day they take walks, sing and tell stories.

Then there’s The Decameron Project.

According to the Tor website:  “Over on Patreon, award-winning author (and contributor) Jo Walton, poet and author Maya Chhabra, and librarian, singer, and SF/F fan Lauren Schiller recently launched the Decameron Project, which aims to provide readers with a new donation-supported short story or novel excerpt every day as long as the world is under threat by the coronavirus.”

Then there’s Tolstoy Together. Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community.#TolstoyTogether.

Let me know about other “lockdown” projects!.