A Simpler Time: Bridge Clubs & Borges

We are, in a way, lucky to live in the U.S. this spring. According to the White House, approximately one-third of the U.S. population, 100 million American adults, are now fully vaccinated. The number of Covid cases has fallen to pre-October levels, except in a few hotspots like Oregon (a hip state – so there’s a surprise!) and Wisconsin.

It has been a dangerous time, with the U.S. suffering an unnecessary number of deaths, due to the lack of consistency in mask mandates and health precautions from state to state. Now we breathe a sigh of relief because we have been vaccinated. We wear masks in public, but not always double masks, and we feel relatively safe, as compared to always in danger.

The greatest problem here: to persuade anti-vaxxers and the too-hip-to-get-sick to get vaccinated (no appointment necessary at many sites). This negotiation process will apparently be slow. According to the Washington Post, about one-fourth of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine – and many of them are white Republican males.

Last year was disastrous. We knew little about the virus, we were afraid of library books (some people quarantined them), some states were under lockdown, others not, and, at the height of housewifely insanity, we disinfected doorknobs several times a day.

Maybe it is because of spring, but suddenly I have a more positive outlook. I try to appreciate the slower pace of life and match it to my mother’s: her favorite decade was the ’60’s, when she was home full-time, standing there ironing (like the woman in Tillie Olsen’s story) in front of her favorite soap, As the World Turns. With no internet and no constant connection of the cell phone, she had more time to be present with us, to sit on the back stoop with neighbors. (When she was old, she lamented that people didn’t “neighbor” anymore.) She and her friends, to an extent, made their own entertainment: she enjoyed hosting bridge clubs, fussing about the decorations and prizes, worrying about making coffee in the percolator (she didn’t drink it herself, and didn’t know whether it was good or bad, but it had to be served!).

Mind you, I will not join a bridge club: the only clubs I join are book clubs, since the Drones Club (in Wodehouse) is not open to women (ha ha). But it is calming to avoid the crowd at the mall, unplug the computer occasionally, and read the books on our shelves while we wait for the latest Jhumpa Lahira, which I long to read, but have decided to wait for the paperback instead.

I am not exactly trying to be “mindful,” because I doubt that I can be mindful – but slow time is not necessarily empty. Perhaps I am trying to say, We need boredom? That’s what they say.

Jorge Luis Borges à Biarritz le 27 septembre 1980, France.

My husband and I had a sad conversation the other night. “Do you remember when we attended literary readings in person?”

Yes, we even saw Borges, though we don’t remember what he said or read. We should have taken notes. Why didn’t someone tell us?

So very, very many opportunities. And that was normal life!

We do not know what the future holds, but it is too late to roll it back.

Carpe diem! Horace said it, and so do we.

I Don’t Want to Hear It: Let Me In!

The other day I was puzzling over how to get access to a friend’s mother’s thesis. I learned that it is in storage at a university library. No worries, you think, just request it at the desk. But that is a late-lamented custom. The problem is Covid: you can no longer enter this library without a student ID card, which you apparently insert into a robotic machine that has the power to approve or deny.

I desperately want to read her thesis, which is an analysis of the role of women in 19th-century literature, in a political context, and let’s face it, it may also shed light light on my literary education. My friend and I frequently borrowed books from her mother’s shelves, including 20th-century classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. One of my best T.A.’s also wrote a thesis on women in 19th-century novels, which I would love to read. And I imagine there are other brilliant dissertations there by former T.A.’s, the unsung heroes and heroines propping up university life.

And so I can’t get into the library. How has it come to this, I wonder. How very, very tired we are of all the Covid rules. Here we are, the gray-hairs and white-hairs, vaccinated and rule-abiding, but now too tired NOT to sit down in the cafe for a cup of tea. (It is the most exciting thing I’ve done in a year.) And the voice of reason asserts, If the vaccine is not adequate protection for drinking a cup of tea in an empty cafe, what is it good for? Naturally, I put on my mask after I finished. To the end we must be good role models, even after vaccination!

I am doing all the things I’ve done for a year–washing hands, wearing masks, and social-distancing-and I’ve lost the feeling of panic, which is a good thing. The number of cases is down here, perhaps because of the smooth roll-out of the vaccine. When I read about lockdown in other places, I am sad. Is the lockdown the only way to control the virus? I suppose it is. And so in and out of lockdown everyone goes. Think of it as a time to be peacefully at home…

Tangled up in Headphones, Longer Days, and Literary Links

I love Daylight Saving Time. I metamorphose from a hibernating mammal into an exuberant human being. Changing the clocks (spring forward!) is a hallmark of spring. The worshippers of rosy-fingered dawn lament losing an hour but we see light overcoming darkness. Some states do not, or at least used not, to observe Daylight Saving Time: they were on “God’s time” all year round. But when twilight steals the sun at five o’clock, I histrionically mutter, “I wish I were dead,” and go to bed at eight. As long as I use the subjunctive of to be (were), I am fine. But if I mutter, “I wish I was dead” (the indicative), please ply me with healing subjunctive exercises.

Collection of vintage clock hanging on an old brick wall; Shutterstock

ARE YOU VACCINATED? According to the Atlantic, the U.S. is in good shape with the vaccination rollout, and the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are effective against the new strains. So let us hope we get on top of the fourth wave soon (though isn’t it really just one big wave?). Yes, I have been vaccinated, and I feel more secure. There’s a long way to go, though, with so many, many new cases every day.

MY NO. 1 PROBLEM WITH MASKS: The mask earloops recently got tangled up in my headphones. A delicate disentangling operation had to be performed single-handed in a store.

And now here are three Literary Links.

  1. I recommend Gal Beckerman’s interview with Paul Theroux, “Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling?”, in The New York Times Magazine. His new novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, will be published in April.

And here is a short passage from the article:

For six days, Paul Theroux, the famous American travel writer, dined on hard-boiled eggs, microwaved dal and wine.

He had set out cross-country in a rented Jeep Compass on the day before Thanksgiving, driving from Cape Cod, where he has a house, to Los Angeles, where he delivered boxes of his papers to his archives at Huntington Library, and then flying on to Hawaii, his other home.

Theroux said he observed a landscape largely emptied out by the coronavirus pandemic, from deserted motels in Sallisaw, Okla., and Tucumcari, N.M., where he stopped to sleep, to a rest area in Tennessee where he had his solitary Thanksgiving meal, and the In-N-Out Burger in Kingman, Ariz., on his last day on the road. Every night, as is his habit, he wrote out in longhand all he had seen.

2 At Tor, Melissa Baharddoust, author of Girl, Serpent, Storm, writes about “Persian Legends and Their Western Counterparts.” Here is a short passage:

While poring over Persian myths and legends for my novel, Girl, Serpent, Thorn, I was always delightfully surprised whenever I came across a story that sounded familiar to me from my western upbringing. While I don’t have the expertise to speak to exactly how these stories found their way from one culture to another, or whether any of these stories were directly influenced by each other, I hope you’ll join me in marveling at the way some stories speak to and create common threads in all of us.

3 At The Guardian, Sam Byers explores the post-pandemic future in “We will have to choose our apocalypse: the cost of freedom after the pandemic.”

Here is a passage from the essay:

On one thing, at least, we were all in agreement: we wanted to be free. The problem was that we couldn’t agree on what that freedom looked like, or who should enjoy it. Even as new horizons of collective action and mutual support seemed possible, the urge to do whatever we wanted, free from the inconvenience of consequences, took hold with renewed force. Set against the freedom from infection was the freedom to endanger others by leaving lockdown; the freedom to do away with masks and sow airborne death in the supermarket; the right, via “unmuzzled” speech across high-profile platforms, to spread dangerous, divisive fictions. When finally the halls of US government were stormed and occupied, it wasn’t civil rights activists or eco-warriors posing for a selfie in the chamber, it was a loose conglomeration of angry and often baffled conspiracy theorists, splinter Republicans and Nazis, freely subverting the democracy they claimed to defend.

Keep well and Happy Reading!

The Vaccine: Vampires No More!

Today I received my second dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell you how thankful I am. What a trying year this has been! We have washed our hands compulsively, worn the double mask, and tried to social-distance in a world where few have a sense of their bodies in space. The boost from the vaccine makes me feel psychologically stronger. Later, as I whooshed on my bike past a large group of people monopolizing the trail, I did not, for once, wave a cross or sprinkle Holy Water. Possibly that does not work with Covid carriers anyway. No, I hope everybody, especially that group, gets vaccinated. And, yes, I am still social-distancing, etc., ad nauseam.

If I had futuristic Covid grandchildren, raised on ventilators or masks and expert at the art of social-distancing, I would tell them the story of the vaccine. Once, when our world was overpopulated and polluted, a few manufacturers developed recipes for Covid-19 vaccines. But the vaccines were in short supply, brewed apparently in small pharmaceutical cauldrons, and only available in diminutive quantities. Governments vied for the vaccine, but the factories delivered slowly. And so in the first months of the vaccine, groups were prioritized: precedence was given to health workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents, people over 65, and people under 64 with special medical conditions. The biggest problem was getting an appointment at the government website, which is like scoring a tickets to a sold-out rock Bruce Springsteen concert. Fantastically the site opened at noon but the appointments seemed to be filled at 11:59. But persist, dear people. Eventually…

Vaccines have ended so many epidemics and pandemics. TB, polio, the flu, mumps, measles, smallpox …. There is no downside to the vaccines. The Hummel child would not have died in Little Women! Jo would not have died in Bleak House!

I have no Covid books to recommend, but here are two novels and a memoir about other epidemics and pandemics, polio, TB, and influenza. The book descriptions are taken from Goodreads and Lapham’s Quarterly.

Warm Springs: Traces of a Childhood at FDR’s Polio Haven by Susan Richards Shreve (one of my favorite writers). Just after her eleventh birthday, at the height of the frightening childhood polio epidemic, Susan Richards Shreve was sent as a patient to the sanitarium at Warm Springs, Georgia. It was a place famously founded by FDR, “a perfect setting in time and place and strangeness for a hospital of crippled children.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, this 1924 classic is also a meditation on societal disease. Iain Bamforth at Lapham’s Quarterly writes, “the scholar Hermann J. Weigand called it ‘the epic of disease.’ It is more accurate to say that the novel is the epic of a particular disease, tuberculosis, one which has accompanied humans at least since they started building and settling in cities. But it is also, in a broader sense, an epic of illness—an ambitious attempt to show how being ill was experienced at a particular time in a particular culture.”

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. In an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders—Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney.

Happy Thursday Reading!