At the movies

We take turns watching movies. It passes the time, and each one of us – my husband, my son, and me – gets an alternating chance to pick. Sometimes we lose track of whose turn it is, however. So far we’ve seen:

Uncut Gems (2019). Adam Sandler rightly received rave reviews for his performance as a hustling jeweler pursued by everyone he owes, including his father-in-law. Personally, I found it too frenetic and violent, but the boys liked it. (Tim)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). An artist comes to an island manor to paint, on the sly, a young woman’s portrait. The painting will be sent to the woman’s future husband, and her ambivalence about him is at the root of her aversion to being painted. Heavy mythological overtones here, from the  Charon-like figures who row the artist onto the island, to its dark-mouthed cave and the references to Orpheus and Eurydice. French, with subtitles. (Me)

Color out of Space (2019). The landscape of a weird rural town is the real star of this movie, based on a story by Providence’s own H.P. Lovecraft. Like too many horror movies, the special effects become disgusting after a while, but there are some fine moments in the early going. (Colby)

The Old Man & the Gun (2018). Robert Redford, in his last screen appearance before retiring, plays a real-life gentleman bank robber who can’t kick the habit. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the widowed horsewoman he woos. (Tim)

Lost Horizon (1937). An airplane crashes in the Himalayas in the days leading up to World War II, and its occupants stumble upon Shangri-La, where an ancient seer is saving all the treasures of the world from upcoming cataclysm. James Hilton’s novel holds up, although Frank Capra eliminated the novel’s framed prologue and epilogue and made its ending much less ambiguous. (me)

Night Moves (1975). Gene Hackman shines as usual in this atmospheric tale of a private detective who’s hired by an vulgar, aging actress to find her ingenue daughter. The scenes shot on location in Florida capture great local color, and, in a nod to Steve McQueen, Hackman’s character drives a green Mustang. (Tim)

Honey Boy (2019). Shia LaBeouf stars as his own father in this roman a clef about LaBeouf’s miserable childhood as the child-actor son of an ex-rodeo clown. Some searing scenes will make you uncomfortable, but the film earns every moment. (Colby)

Lifeboat (1944). Based on a John Steinbeck allegory about a motley crew shipwrecked after a Uboat torpedoes their ship, this black-and-white vehicle hums with tension. No surprise, with Alfred Hitchcock directing. Colby and I liked it, but Tim elected to attend a virtual happy hour with coworkers instead. (me)

I, the Jury (1982). Remake starring Armand Assante as Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s playboy detective who dashes around New York bedding women and outsmarting bad guys. I thought it was dreadful, verging on soft porn (it barely earned an R rating and later got slammed with an X), its 111 minutes salvaged only by Armand’s laconic sexiness and a comical chase scene straight out of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” (Tim, but Colby was the enabler.)

Parasite (2019). Everything you’ve heard about Bong Joon Ho’s darkly weird and wonderful dissection of class warfare is true: This movie deserved every award it won. At once horrifying and comic, the movie layers in symbol after symbol of the downtrodden class, who have moments of both triumph and tragedy. In Korean, with subtitles. (Colby)

Paris, Texas (1984). Written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, this tale of a man who wanders out of the Mojave Desert after a disappearance of four years has so much going for it: the inscrutable performance of Harry Dean Stanton in the lead role, music by Ry Cooder, incredible cinematography (particularly of rural Texas), and even an unrestored Ford Ranchero. (me, suggested by Colby)

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Reliving a month of headlines

Coronavirus diary: Day Whatever

What a difference a month makes.

I recycled a basketful of newspapers this morning. As I did, the coronavirus spun back in time, from this week’s urgent six-column headlines about deaths, panic, and a collapsing economy, to the beginning of the month, when the virus didn’t even make it above the fold.

Usually I rifle through the pile fairly quickly, looking for any clips of my work in the Providence Journal, occasionally saving an op-ed from the Times for my students, or setting aside an arts story I want to think about.

But as I began my sorting, I couldn’t stop looking at the Times headlines. I started setting the front sections aside.

It begins with yesterday’s front page:

JOB LOSSES SOAR; U.S. VIRUS CASES TOP WORLD. Yes, it is in all caps. This is a six-column head, what we called in my newspaper days “coast to coast.” Read on for more of these:

U.S. SEEKS $500 BILLION IN CHECKS FOR TAXPAYERS. Thursday. The bailout has not yet passed.

PRESSURE ON TRUMP AS MILLIONS ARE KEPT HOME. Saturday, March 21. 

PLAN WOULD INJECT $1 TRILLION INTO ECONOMY. Wednesday, March 18. A week and a half, but a lifetime ago. So it took about that long to get the deal through Congress.
FED CUTS RATES TO NEAR ZERO; VIRUS TOLL SOARS. Monday, March 16. The photo is of a solitary traveler making her way through Grand Central Station. One of the city’s busiest transportation hubs is a ghost town. A story below it is headed: ‘Hunker Down’: New York Feels Growing Pressure to Close Shop.

EUROPE SEALS UP/TO STEM THREAT/OF VIRUS SPREAD. Sunday, March 15. A two-column head on the lead spot (the right). The coronavirus is joined on the front page by a story about Republican judicial appointees. 

WORST ROUT FOR WALL STREET  SINCE 1987 CRASH. Friday, March 13. This is the day when all hell breaks loose. Colleges and schools announce closures. Sports teams have infected  players; play is suspended indefinitely. Italy is in its third week of the epidemic and has closed all stores but pharmacies and grocery markets. We aren’t quite there yet.

W.H.O. CITES A PANDEMIC AS DISRUPTION SETS IN. Thursday, March 12. The night before, the President suspended all travel from Europe. Americans overseas are scrambling to get home. I read the front page and then drive to Norwich, teaching what would be my last face-to-face classes this semester. A pall hangs over the corridors of the community college; I tell my students I hope we will be back together soon. At 5 p.m., the college announces it is closing.

MARKETS SPIRAL AS GLOBE SHUDDERS OVER VIRUS. Tuesday, March 10. New York has 142 cases. The photo is of the Grand Princess, the quarantined cruise ship in Oakland, Calif.

Italy Begs Citizens Not to Thwart Rules on Virus. Monday, March 9. A modest three-column story below a photo montage of a couple who have moved up their wedding, a cabbie cleaning his cab, and Elmo and other characters still parading around Times Square. The lead story is about Trump’s control of the GOP.

Behind Coronavirus Chaos at the White House. Sunday, March 8. Another modest three-column head, below a picture of an infected woman being brought into a Nebraska hospital in a bubble, an “isolation pod.” The lead story is about the Blackwater contractor being used to infiltrate liberal Democratic campaigns.

Rising Virus Fears Leave/Trail of Wall St. Carnage. Saturday, March 7. It’s the lead today, but it shares top of the fold with a photo and story about Syrian refugees.

AIRLINES WORRIED/VIRUS MAY ERASE/UP TO $113 BILLION. Friday, March 6. Uppercase, but over one column; the rest of the page is dominated by political stories. There’s a story below the fold about the nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. Washington state has the most cases in the nation, at 75; California has 60; New York, 22. Rhode Island has two. Nurses are already raising alarms about shortages of protective equipment. Meanwhile, I teach my last class at URI; as I bid them a good spring break, I don’t yet know I won’t be seeing my students again this semester.

C.D.C. Opens Coronavirus Testing to Wider Pool. Thursday, March 5. Three columns, below a picture of Japanese students still attending school. The lead story is that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has dropped out of the presidential race.

MARKETS GRIPPED/BY FEAR OF VIRUS/DESPITE RATE CUT. Wednesday, March 4. This two-column story competes for the top spot with the Biden-Sanders race, as Biden wins four Southern states.

Tapping Private Labs, U.S. Seeks/Nearly a Million Tests This Week (two columns) and C.D.C.’s Missteps in Screening/Gave Coronavirus an Opening (two columns). Tuesday, March 2. The photo is of a man walking in Times Square with a mask on. But the lead story is still Biden vs. Sanders, with Amy Klobuchar dropping out of the race.

Nursing Home in Focus as Virus Spreads in U.S. Monday, March 2. Shoehorned among two political stories, one about Afghanistan and another about climate change deniers, this story raises the spectre of a virus that is already spreading in communities across the U.S. The photo is from Afghanistan. On this day, Pete Buttigieg dropping out of the Democratic primary battle gets the top spot.

Readiness for U.S. for an Epidemic Raises Fears about Shortages. Sunday, March 1. This four-deck, prophetic headline is below the fold, with a picture of a nursing home patient in Kirkland, Wash., being wheeled out to an ambulance. The nursing home had only two cases at this point. But although the New York Times fills its prime front-page space with stories about the Taliban peace accord and Biden’s South Carolina win, this coronavirus story is chilling: Reporters have dug up a 2005 federal report that an influenza epidemic would require ventilators for 740,000 patients. The country has an estimated 10,000 in its stockpile and 62,000 in hospitals.

Some observations: Like the virus, the story took a while to spread into the newspaper’s lead spot. Economic havoc gets bigger headlines than virus cases or deaths. And today’s problems are eerily predicted in yesterday’s headlines. Overall, that March 1 paper, the oldest in my recycling pile, seems both a clarion call for action and a relic from a more innocent time.

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Social distancing in literature

Coronavirus diary

Day Whatever 

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Thus begins one of literature’s great social-distancing novels, Jane Eyre, about the mistreated orphan who grows up to become a governess in a house with a secret. As she gradually gains the trust of the anti-social Mr. Rochester, little does Jane know that he has hidden away his wife, the crazed Bertha Mason, lest her madness infect her daughter and the rest of the household.

But when the novel opens Jane is a child in the Reed household, where the mother “regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance” from her natural-born children, lest the orphan Jane infect them with her sober, impertinent personality.

If you think of it, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss begins the same way, with children shut up in a house: “The sun did not shine/It was too wet to play/So we sat in the house/All that cold, cold, wet day.”

That was pretty much the situation here at the Homestead yesterday. It snowed fat flakes, then it rained needle-like drops, then it poured, and all the while we three roamed about the house, unable to take our customary walk to the post office. So after teaching online in the morning, I spent the afternoon reading in the living room and eating just about anything I could get my hands on. Happy hour started at 4 p.m., a new record.

As it happens, I am teaching my English students a story that has a social-distancing vibe. Robert M. Coates’s “The Hour After Westerly” is about a hardware salesman who, on his ride home from Providence to New Haven one day, loses an hour of his memory. When Davis Harwell comes to awareness outside of New London, he has no memory of anything past the Rhode Island border. 

The story, one of regrets and missed chances, takes place almost entirely in Harwell’s car, a pod that isolates him from the rest of the world. We meet his wife only via a hasty phone call he makes to her that evening, to explain his lateness, and his other encounters are with strangers – a waitress who confirms the time; a bartender who seems to recognize him a few weeks later; a shapely woman at a summer cottage who is the center of his longings. He is isolated, alone, and alienated, knowing that he has missed out on something in life but lacking the courage or wherewithal to go back and get it.

Published in 1947 in the New Yorker, the story gained some fame later when it was anthologized in a Ray Bradbury collection. It has a sort of “Twilight Zone” feel to it; one can hear Rod Serling’s voice in the line, “This was the beginning of a curious episode in Davis Harwell’s life …” So, too, are we experiencing a curious episode, but we have not lost an hour, we have lost the entire rhythm of our former life.

Because confined space accelerates tension, the trope of people shut up together in a house can be found in many books, plays, and movies. It is the foundation of most haunted house stories; if the occupants were free to leave, the house would lose its hold over them. 

Last night we watched the Hitchcock movie “Lifeboat,” about shipwreck survivors during World War II who take a Nazi aboard their tiny craft – the very captain of the Uboat who sank their ship. The entire movie takes place on this open vessel, where the moral fiber of each character is put to a severe test. They can’t go anywhere; they can’t escape their antagonists or themselves.

Thus we are all marooned right now with ourselves and, if we are lucky, our families. The car is one of the few safe places of escape, but the road trip has no destination or rest stop. On Sunday we drove to Meadowbrook Pond and ate lunch in the car, just to get out of the house.

At the beginning of Jane Eyre, the feisty protagonist is sent to a miserable boarding school, Lowood, where contagion breaks out and consumption takes her first and dearest friend, Helen Burns. Lowood was based on Cowan Bridge, the school where two of Charlotte’s sisters became gravely ill; Elizabeth and Maria both died shortly after being brought home with Emily and Charlotte. Disease, Jane Eyre, tells us, “became an inhabitant of Lowood, and death its frequent visitor.” 

Mrs. Reed, the evil guardian who put her there, marveled years later: “What did they do with her at Lowood? The fever broke out there, and many of the pupils died. She, however, did not die; but I said she did – I wish she had died!”

But Jane is made of stronger stuff than that. She survives Lowood, and Thornfield Hall, and every other sequester the world throws at her. And so too must we.

This is page 1 of the 1943 edition featuring the wood engravings of Fritz Eichenberg. The text is in the public domain.

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Virtual diagnosis

Day whatever plus 1

So today we learned what happens when you need to go to the doctor for some totally coronavirus-unrelated matter.

Yesterday I woke up with this … feeling that something was on me. Like a crumb, only not a crumb. Right under my armpit. The sagacious among you have already guessed: It was a tick. A teeny-tiny tick, not the kind you want to find sucking the life blood out of you.

After my husband yanked it off (ouch), the spot still felt sore. And looked worse, a sort of red lump. 

Now, the last thing I want to do right now is sit in a doctor’s office, which is what I told the nurse when I finally got her on the phone.

No problem. FaceTime.

So it was that my doctor and I chatted on my iPhone, which also gave him an upclose look at the offending area. He asked a few questions, prescribed doxycycline for 14 days, but suggested I wait until Monday to take it. By then I should know if the telltale bull’s-eye rash has developed and if I’m going to get any of the symptoms of Lyme disease.

I did have to go to the pharmacy, but I used hand sanitizer liberally afterwards.

Telemedicine – we’ve heard about it for years, but now it’s here and it works. Certainly there are some conditions that require an in-person physical exam. But it’s good to know that a straightforward matter like a rash can be diagnosed virtually.

That was today’s excitement. I got some papers graded and watched a video on how to use WebEx. I wrote three letters to friends – an elderly shut-in, another teacher like myself, and a psychiatric nurse who I’m sure is working overtime. 

Now it’s tea time.

Here’s the culprit – Kitty the Tick Hotel.

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Coronavirus Diary

 

Day Whatever

How long have I been home? Too long. I think the last time I drove might have been Friday. Or was it a week ago Thursday? All I know is my previous haunts – including the coffeehouse where I do most of my writing – are off limits. 

Three of us are living and mostly working at the old Homestead. Tim is editing The Day from the dining room table. Colby’s still going into The Narragansett Times to do layout, but otherwise he’s home, since all schoolboy sports have been suspended. Starting next week I’ll be teaching online via the conferencing software WebEx, a situation that will continue for the rest of the semester at both schools.

This is what a typical day looks like.

We sleep a little later than usual. After breakfast, we retreat to our separate corners, and I go upstairs to my office. Grading, prepping, and emailing students goes on, coronavirus or no. I chip away at my to-do list: rewriting syllabi, preparing Google slides, dashing off some freelance work.

After lunch, Colby and I walk to the post office, rain or shine. If not for this ritual I would have gained even more weight than afternoon happy hour endows. Sometimes we stop at the Lower Falls bridge and look for trout; with social distancing, I wonder what will happen to Opening Day.

At night we watch Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and, if we can stay awake, a movie. So far we’ve seend Portrait of a Lady on Fire (French; subtitled), Color Out of Space (based on a Lovecraft story), The Old Man and The Gun (Robert Redford as an aging bank robber), and Uncut Gems (Adam Sandler; a little violent and loud, but not bad). 

That’s it. No breakfast at Sophie’s, writing at Dave’s, or tea break in the Three Rivers cafeteria. No chatting with Donna in the Writing & Rhetoric office or fellow adjuncts Allana, John, or Michelle at Three Rivers. No face-to-face meeting with my students – all 91 of them have been banished to cyberspace. 

It’s like a semester-long snow day, only we don’t know when it will end. The joy of the rare day at home, when the wind blows and the snow flies and you can curl up on the couch and read for hours, is only valuable because it’s ephemeral. Dragging on, such enforced time off quickly loses its charm.

On my living room wall is a painting by the talented marine artist Antonia Tyz Peeples. Snow falls on a roiling aqua sea; a white winter sun hovers in the distance. If you squint, you can barely see Block Island in the distance.

That’s our life now. We are at sea, tossed by winter waves, and our destination is a pinprick on the horizon. We have to roll with it. We have no choice.

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All those scares of the past

My mother was always one to get wound-up in a crisis. After all, she had lived through the Hurricane of 1938, and that was her reference point. She was 18 when the storm took most of Misquamicut, about a mile from the Crandall Farm, and she never forgot its devastation. The briefest flash of lightning could send her into a tizzy.

By the time Hurricane Belle arrived in 1976, when I was 16, my mother had worked me into a frenzy with her stories about the disaster of 1938. Even then I had a flair for the dramatic:

Today is August ninth, my mind reeled off, the seventh anniversary of the Sharon Tate killings – there’ll be a full moon – … and now this, the steady drone of the television coming upstairs, the meteorologist’s voice warning us of Hurricane Belle’s rapid, threatening progress towards the East Coast. Belle! Once a tempest in the lush tropics, now a swirling mass of wind and rain and vengeance driving toward us. I forced my eyes open and stared at the peeling off-white ceiling. So this was why I was so superstitious about today!

I reeled off all the stories I had heard from my parents about the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. I thought the name was fitting because of my Great-Aunt Belle, a blowzy blonde woman from California who had been dead for years but about whom I had imagined all sorts of dramatic story lines. In my journal I wrote all that August day and into the night, trying to capture the significance of the storm:

The wind began to pick up around nine-thirty. I went outside to stand on the porch and feel the wind rippling against me. In the swirling blue-black darkness the trees, their branches black-tattered fringe, were bent and tossed and shaken by the surging blasts. The wind against me was oddly oppressive. Then, looking up between the parting dusky blue clouds I discerned the glow of a muted silver moon, full and swollen, drifting strangely in and out of focus, and in and out of the clouds. I was mesmerized. I ran upstairs and shed my shorts and tank top in favor of my light green classic Grecian nightgown, and ran back outside into the wind and black of night, staring up at the moon as my hair was whipped about and my gown blown against my legs. I felt like a goddess: Diana, of the moon and the hunt.

I don’t know where my parents were while all I was running around outside in my nightgown, but I can bet they were in bed asleep. I don’t know what is funnier: the turgid romance-novel prose, or the detour into a very specific wardrobe description that could have come from the pages of Glamour magazine. Not for nothing did I volunteer to write the commentary at all of our high school fashion shows.

To my disappointment, the storm left little in its wake but one felled oak tree and a lot of mud puddles. Like the power outages of 1965 and 1977, Hurricane Belle was a fleeting disaster that got my mother – and me – all worked up for what turned out to be temporary inconvenience.

My mother was equally afraid of contagion. If she were alive today, she would be apoplectic. How many times did she tell us about her uncle, Daniel Arnold, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, leaving behind a pregnant widow and 8 children? This before Social Security existed as a safety net. Arnold’s children ranged in age from 17 to four months, and his daughter Virginia was born the April after his death.

I grew up in the shadow of all these old tragedies and disasters. The message was that ill fortune could strike at any time. If we poo-pooed my mother’s hysteria, she would tell us cryptically that we didn’t know anything about it.

Of course, we would grow up to witness 21st-century threats, like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, and now the coronavirus epidemic. And I’m sure I’ve passed on my own obsessions to my children. It is no coincidence that my eldest is getting a master’s degree in emergency preparedness.

Maybe, like DNA, we pass on our fears to protect our children. We try to inoculate them against the threats of our childhood. But the nature of disaster, like the virus we’re hiding from right now, keeps mutating. So we remain vigilant, and we can never really tell if our fears are warranted or not.

The “light green classic Grecian nightgown”

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Whose boots are these?

I first noticed them earlier this week. The happenstance of a school bus stopping placed me just past the old Line & Twine in Ashaway. There, to my right, a pair of men’s workboots sat on a stoop. They were perfectly lined up, toes facing the road. They might have been a piece of art – stuffed with dried flowers, say, or accented with a pumpkin, they could pass for some rural still life. Or they might have been just a pair of men’s work boots, left outside to dry or air out. 

The boots were there again this morning, filling with rain, so I thought either that their unfortunate owner hadn’t read the forecast, or they indeed were meant as a bit of Swamp Yankee décor. With our own yard full of sawmill blades and petroleum cans, I can appreciate the effect.

Soon, those boots made their way into rhymed couplets in my mind: Whose boots these are I think I know/He left them on the stoop in a row. Or: In the room boots come and go/reeking odors toe to toe.

“Boots” being such a friendly rhyming word, worming its way into Frost’s woods and Eliot’s women, I could have gone on with these silly rhymes all morning.

Whoever lives in the boots’ house has more than a passing relationship with the river. It’s hard by the back yard, itself barely the size of a sandbox. Whoever lives here could easily walk outside and cast a fly into the dark waters of the Pawcatuck, or launch a canoe or kayak. But these weren’t waders on the step, they were men’s work boots, the simple unadorned kind that have seen years of work yet stand up to the punishment. A roofer, maybe, a carpenter, a construction worker.

My father always had a good pair of boots – steel-toed, for protection against an errant chain saw or dropped log. My mother didn’t make him leave them outside, for we had a back room for such things. They were scuffed, mud-covered, sawdust-filled. At night, my father sat in the living room in just his stocking feet, glad to be free of the stiffened leather and rawhide lacings. 

Yet, when he competed in the Rocky Hill State Fair woodchopping contest, my father did so barefoot. He claimed it gave him a better grip on the log, to prop his foot up there while he chopped away. His concentration and coordination were legendary. My grandfather lost a finger to a saw, but my father kept all his digits until the end.

I don’t know what those boots were doing outside Tuesday, or in the rain today, and I don’t really want to know. I’d rather imagine how they got there, walk inside them a little bit. They are just a little story waiting to be told.

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