On Paper: Cards, Letters,& Horace’s Invitation to a Dinner Party

Kurt Vonnegut often wrote about the non-linear nature of time. He  meditated on this in his superb novels Slaughterhouse Five and Timequake.  But  Kurt, like the  time-traveling hero of Slaughterhouse Five, couldn’t escape  World War II.  Both were imprisoned by the Germans in Dresden during the fire-bombing in 1945. 

When we look back from this threatening spring, what will we remember?  Many of us will recall a more distant past.  A childhood  spent running freely around a green neighborhood?  Bicycling to the quarry for a picnic and an illicit swim?  Reading  Greek poetry  in a studio apartment while waiting for my boyfriend?  There was reading, there was bicycling, there was marriage, there were movies (sitting through the credits–how pompous!),  jobs good and bad, yearning humanly for something–always.

This spring of 2020 is indecipherable, a change from what I can only call the liberal arts life.  In these weeks of the pandemic, probably months, possibly a year, we are alternately calm and fearful.  We stay home sensibly and revert to the quiet life, but the news is agonizing (so avoid it).  Of course there is a new lightness as we walk through clean air during a beautiful spring, a Climate Change spring–but soothing nonetheless.

Paper, notebooks, books, letters, bills, junk mail, Christmas cards:  paper marked our days in the 20th century.  We loved the mail, if we had no responsibility to pay the bills.   “Get the mail, please,” my mother said, and sighed because there was”nothing good.” Sometimes she worried about the bills, even lacked money for the grocery store.  So, already anxious at age 9,  I wrote an altruistic little  “book” for her (we shall call it “Pennies from Heaven”).  The characters found pennies around the house for their mom.  I adorably pasted actual coins in my illustrations in the book.  I was sure it would be enough to buy groceries.

But cards were our favorite thing. Holiday cards!  My mother also taught me to write Thank You notes.  How I loved the little cards!  I don’t know if anyone writes them anymore.  And then I wrote to my pen-pal, Pam from Australia, whose letters were curiously disappointing. My later correspondence with friends in adulthood was much more satisfying–in fact, delightful, But a few years ago,  I threw out a whole drawer of letters. 

I love the Mitfords’ letters!

I have always been fond of letters in literature–Charles Lamb, Virginia Woolf, the Mitford sisters-but I especially enjoy letters written in ancient times. There is a whole genre of invitations written in the form of poems.  Most famous is Catullus’s simple poem (Catullus 13), which you may know.  It begins with the line, “You will dine well if you bring your own.” ( I thought I wrote a translation of the poem at one of my blogs, but can’t find it.)

I don’t have this translation, but I love the cover.

Horace’s dinner invitation to his friend Torquatus (Epistle I.5) is longer, more complex, and sometimes philosophical.  Here are the comic opening lines:

“If you are don’t mind reclining on a scruffy couch/ and eating a dinner of herbs in a cheap dish/ I will await you at home, Torquatus, today at sunset./  You will drink unremarkable wine, which was bottled  six years ago / in Petrinum between marshy Minturnae and Sassinium./ If you have something better, send for it or submit to my orders./The hearth shines  brightly for you and the humble seats are spic-and-span.”

What could be better than cheap wine and greens!  This is my prose translation “version,” with a few slight changes to make it readable.

I think we’ll have greens for dinner tonight…

I hope you’ll have a great social-distancing dinner of wine and greens yourself!

Falling Asleep During Yoga

The universe

Where are we now? The Midwest, the United States, Earth, the Milky Way, the Universe, as we wrote in our lock-and-key diaries from Woolworth’s.  We are utterly serene, because we regularly fall asleep  while lying down on the floor during our yoga Savasana (Corpse Pose).  I can’t help it…you’re not supposed to…but I’m so tired.

The pandemic is exhaussting. Never underestimate the stupidity of the human race.  Some Republican governors plan  to “open” coronavirus-riddled states in May.  The malls, the restaurants…very smart!

Let me quote a tweet of protest from one midwesterner: 

“Kim Reynolds [the governor] is a threat. Iowa is leading the nation in the spread of covid. Highest rate of new cases. We’re 2-3 weeks from a peak. But yes, let’s reopen the state.”

(I’m not sure the tweeter’s stats are right–but I can verify the numbers in the midwest are heinous.)

.I…just…can’t…care…anymore.  I sit with my head tilted up watching a perfect azure sky identical to the perfect azure sky I grew up with.  Then we sat on canvas lawn chairs, now it’s Adirondack chairs or plastic.  But the same cottony clouds…the same radiant rising crescent moon… similar people drinking iced tea or beer in their yards…  It could be any time really.

So at least we still have a beautiful spring.

As for reading, I finished Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, one of my favorite novels. I always see Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder, because of the superb mini-series. Now I’m thinking of rereading A. N. Wilson’s Lampitt Chronicles (sort of a cross between Anthony Powell and H. G. Wells’ realistic comic novels) but of course can find only two of the five books on my shelves–and neither is the first.  I do like the cover of the second novel,  A Bottle in the Smoke, though.

And  here’s some fun  news:  I  “altered” a tie-cardigan by cutting off the ties, which were always getting caught in doors.    Now I call it my “post-yoga hygge cardigan.”   Can I sell it on e-bay?

Homework at the End of the World: Lockdown, Classics, and Snakes and Ladders

Turn on, tune in, drop out.  But we’re doing this through literature, not drugs.

It’s time to read the classics. We’ve got a lot of homework at the end of the world!  My copy of Don Quixote is on the night table, but I am also finishing up Anthony Burgess’s Enderby books, which are comic classics in their own right. 

And then there’s the Latin literature.  Much of it is comic, too.  

Why, you may wonder, would anyone want to read Roman comedy during lockdown?  Well, it’s fun for me, and it’s funny.  But I do love classics in other languages too,  and am thrilled that so many people are turning to the great books. According to essays  in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, people are reading War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The Decameron.  And sales are up at Penguin, according to The Guardian.

In the fifth (or is it sixth?) week of lockdown, the number of coronavirus cases here has climbed from seven to 5,000.  All I can say is, it is terrifying, but thank God we live in a sparsely-populated state.  Every day we wake up and are glad we’re well, but at the same time,  What fresh hell is this?    

I have a bookish discovery.  LET ME RECOMMEND THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF,  Doris Langley Moore’s A Game of Snakes and Ladders, first published in 1938 and recently reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow. This is one of the most charming novels I have read, and I will certainly read it again and again.  A great theater novel!

At the end of World War I, Lucy and Daisy, actresses in a theatrical company, have become casual friends:   Lucy, a  witty, charming vicar’s daughter,  got the job for Daisy, a lower-class woman stranded in Australia after a bad marriage.  When the company arrives in Egypt, the social gap between the two  widens: Daisy absorbs herself in an affair with the rich owner of the company, while Lucy desperately saves money to return to London.  Lucy loses her money, her looks, and job after a long illness, mainly because of a decision of Daisy’s.  You will love Lucy’s story–she never loses hope but is stranded for years in Egypt–and you will  admire Moore’s graceful, dazzling prose.  

This is the best of the three books I’ve read by Moore, who was a novelist, a Byron scholar, and founder of a fashion museum.

The Plague Notebook: Derealization in SF Time

Earth Day, April 22, 1970

All too easily, this could be a science fiction novel.

“You don’t necessarily develop a vaccine that is safe and effective against every virus. Some viruses are very, very difficult when it comes to vaccine development – so for the foreseeable future, we are going to have to find ways to go about our lives with this virus as a constant threat,”  said David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College, London, and an envoy for the World Health Organization on Covid-19 (The Guardian).

We don’t see the larger picture when we look at the pandemic.  We say cheerfully, “They WILL find a vaccine soon.” And some happy people look on the “bright side,” the decrease of pollution.  They believe our society will carry this ecological awareness into “the new normal.”  

I love the new clean air and the new quiet–I see the beauty of nature more than ever–but I suspect  Paradise will be lost-again. People will get back in their cars, trucks, SUVs, and hybrids (the compromise quasi-ecological vehicle affordable to the few) and drive doorstep-to-doorstep more than ever, running their engines constantly at drive-throughs.  

Accidents and politics are interwoven.  One gathers that Covid-19 was an accident transmitted by bats to live animals in a Wuhan market  (ugh!) and then to humans.  There is plenty to despair about with such a horrifying accident, and we have read about the deforestation and urban sprawl that led to greater proximity to wild animals and thence the virus.   

And then there is overpopulation, as we have known at least since the mid-20th century, one of the greatest causes of pollution and a deterrent to sustainability and life on earth.  And so the plague: accident, politics, conspiracy theories, and a kind of I Am Legend a wound up in a big SF novel (with a bad plot!).

There are three science fiction books I recommend to help cope with our pollution-created crises:  Frank Herbert’s ecological masterpiece, Dune (which I posted abut at my old blog Mirabile Dictu here and here), John Brunner’s The Sheep Look up (which I posted about here), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest (not at all a good book, but an ecolological novel)!  

How Did We Go Through Seventeen Glasses in a Day?

Glasses and cups were all over the kitchen.  I counted them: seventeen. I mean, life is marvelous, isn’t it?  The number of dirty cups?  Mirabile dictu, and all that. 

In the middle of Covid-19 plague, my friend is temporarily crippled in an accident, and all I’m thinking about is keeping up with the dishes.   I calculate that I used seven of them. There was the tea, later the water, then the orange juice, then flavored water, then the coffee, etc…..  She used the rest.  And she insists on a new glass every time she drinks.  (“It’s sanitary.”)

She suggested, “Bring bottled drinks and I’ll drink out of the bottle.” 

“Maybe paper cups?”

Friends are splitting shifts to help out, and I admit I’m a lousy nurse.  I’m bewildered to find myself early in the morning sitting in the hospital atrium while she has a brain scan. Only patients can enter the neurology office.  I take off my mask in the atrium, because honestly nobody is around.   Did she take off her mask for the brain scan?  I forgot to ask.

Two hours later, she emerges from the elevator.  “I hope my brain is okay,” she says sadly.  “Do you have my book?”

And then–yup, we’re back on the bus, wearing masks and gloves. It’s free!  But you  need to use a ton of sanitizer the minute you get off, and wash your hands thourghly at home–and possibly shower.  

She went off the pain pills today.  Whatever marvelous benefits other people acquire from pain pills seem to make her sick.  “Everything hurts!”

“I know, I know.  More Tylenol?” 

And so she’s bundled up in a blanket, hygge-style, listening to rock music.  We decide the Most Inappropriate 1960s Song for 2020 is “Touch Me” by the Doors.

Yeah! Come on, come on, come on, come on
Now touch me, babe
Can’t you see that I am not afraid?
What was that promise that you made?
Why won’t you tell me what she said?
What was that promise that you made?

The Doors, 1968

She applies ice packs to various parts of her body.  I wash the 17 glasses and cups.

The good thing is:  we don’t have coronavirus. 

And the other good thing:  I never wanted to be a professional nurse.

New Yorker cartoon, March 23, 2020

Are You There, God?  It’s Us, the Humans

Milton’s Paradise Lost, illustration “Satan Exulting over Eve” by William Blake

We stood in the yard under the moon.  Our conversation with God was less poignant than Margaret’s in the 1970 Judy Blume book, Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret.  I imagine Margaret was more respectful, though I admit I haven’t read the book.  

I began the skirmish.  “I wish you were dead, God.”

My friend picked up the ball with “See you in hell, God.”

Okay, we’re women.  We try to look on the bright side.  Coronavirus? Bring it on!  We can stay indoors indefinitely and disinfect doorknobs–until we can’t. The mad washing of hands goes on, but we’re done wiping down stainless steel fixtures and tea kettle handles.  Our contacts with carriers are limited, and, frankly, I would rather read my book than be a slave to Lysol. This is not to say I’m perusing the most challenging books when I’m not wiping the counter.   Nope, I’m rereading “comfort” books:  Milton’s Paradise Lost Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. 

I semi-prayed at first, but gave up.  It’s obnoxious to take the Name of the Lord in Vain, but I envision the Miltonic God of Paradise Lost and feel angry.  I curse the god of Clorox.  On the other hand, I admire Jesus in Paradise Regained. so maybe I should reread that instead.

Don’t we deserve to curse?  My friend was hospitalized with a broken arm, two broken ribs, and fractured vertebrae.  Alone in the hospital, she begged me to visit.  No visitors were allowed because of coronavirus. 

Yes, I understand, but I also begged the nurse to find some way we could care for her at home. That was not possible at the time.   

And so she’s finally out, and we’re cursing in the back yard.

Are you there, God?  It’s us, the humans.

The Plague Notebook:  A Privileged Boredom & Lockdown Reading

Staying home is a small price to pay for safety. It is like having a bodyguard, only it’s not human:  a house, a rented room, an apartment, a geodesic dome, whatever shelter we have.  Here’s a typical day in the spring of Covid-19:  we read our books, check the news, watch TV, check the news, clean the house, check the news. It is a privileged boredom. Think of the homeless.  Think of the emptying food banks.

But everyone is in shape, finally! Whenever we’re claustrophobic, we go outside.  The parks, of course, are closed, so when a friend snuck into an empty park to play Frisbee,  the police sent him/her home. And here’s a  very strange story: a mall outside of Omaha claims it will open next week.  I joked, “We’ll be there.” 

Business Insider says, “More than 13,000 Americans died last week from COVID-19, surpassing past weekly averages for other common causes of death like heart disease and cancer.”  

Let us hope coronavirus goes away soon.

Fortunately there are still good books to read. 

ANTHONY BURGESS’S ENDERBY NOVELS.  This quartet of comical novels, Inside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s Dark Lady,  is delightfully quirky.  I urge you to read them if you need light relief.  Burgess tells the story of Enderby, a dyspeptic English poet who writes poetry in the lavatory, frequently using the toilet paper roll as a pencil holder and writing on toilet paper.   In the first novel, he is fatally seduced away from his lavatory writing by an ambitious woman, Vesta Bainbridge, whom he unhappily marries–it ends badly.  In  the second novel, Outside Enderby, which I just reread, he has supposedly been cured of poetry by a psychiatrist:  he has metamorphosed into a bartender named Hogg.  When a pop star, Yod Crewsley,  celebrates publishing a book of poetry at a party at the bar, Enderby is astonished to realize the poems are plagiarized:  he had composed them while living with Vesta, who is now married to the pop star.  And then a disgruntled former manager shoots Crewsley, leaving Enderby with the smoking gun.  His flight from the police to Tangier is hialrious, and at least his poetic muse speaks again in the muddle that follows.

The third book is equally funny, as I remember, but I am pretty sure I haven’t read the fourth. It is Burgess’s convoluted, poetic language that makes Enderby stand out from other satires about writers.  And, let’s face it, what is a funnier subject than a poet?  I do love Enderby.

Enderby’s poems are stunning, too.

LOUISE ERDRICH’S new novel, THE NIGHT WATCHMAN,  is partly political, partly a poignant tribute to the resilience of American Indian identity.  Inspired by the life of  Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a chief of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, it tells the story of  a tribe in crisis and their political organization to prevent Congress from disbanding them and taking their land in the 1950s.   

There are two main threads: the hero, Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman at a factory, organizes the fight against termination. Thomas is charming, funny, shrewd, and spiritual:  he has encounters with a snowy owl, a ghost, and spirtis in the sky.   The other thread follows Pixie (Patrice), Thomas’s niece, a very smart high school graduate who is a skilled worker at a factory and determined to rise through the ranks.   But life is a struggle:  she supports her mother and younger brother financially, and plays the masculine role in the family, chopping wood, hunting game, and contriving to clothe and fee them.  The whole family grieves over the disappearance of Patrice’s older sister Vera, who has disappeared in Minneapolis. The fight against Congress and the search for Vera are skillfully intertwined.

Gorgeous, lyrical writing, resilient characters, and a narrative interwoven with magic realism, ghosts, and unexpected events.