Monthly Archives: July 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year: #22

Photo: Los Angeles Times

I live in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. You might say that it is the closest suburb to downtown, just south of the city center by a 15 minute car ride. In my town of Milwaukie, there are often small groups of people on the sidewalks of 99 or at the Farmer’s Market downtown holding up signs that say Black Lives Matter and deriding the current administration. While I was at the market Sunday buying Lavender plants for the yard with my wife, cars coming down the highway would honk their support for the sign wavers. No trouble. No conflict. No police. If there were alt right-white supremacists in the area, they kept quiet.

Downtown Portland has seen large scale protests for sixty days running in response to the murder of George Floyd and a spate of police violence against black Americans across the country. Early on, things were vandalized or destroyed. People looted businesses where storefront windows were shattered. Fires were set. If you were sympathetic to injustices perpetrated against Black Americans in this country and in particular aggrieved by Portland’s abysmal history along these lines, it was easy to understand the rage. But further sleuthing revealed that much of the violence and vandalism could be attributed to people outside the BLM movement, inciting the chaos either because they deliberately wanted bad PR for the movement, or they were just opportunists, looking for an excuse to act out. At any rate, what is absolutely clear is that the vandalism and the violence perpetrated by civilians represented a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of people in peaceful protest. Nevertheless, riot police were often in conflict with crowds. Tear gas and rubber bullets were commonplace. People got severely hurt.

Then in the coming weeks, outside of a wide assortment of graffiti art, the protests continued, but large scale destruction, looting, and violent protests had diminished and peaceful demonstrations seemed to be the order of the day. But in the last week or two, despite this fact, violence against protestors by local police and, horrifyingly, by unidentified federal agents from Homeland Security, has increased. Goons dressed in camo are abducting people into unmarked vehicles without identifying themselves or stating any reason for detention or arrest. An American vet was beaten for simply asking the officers to remember their oaths. A young man was shot in the head with a rubber bullet that shattered his skull. Local mothers in a line of protection in front of protestors were tear gassed. Local dads showed up with leaf blowers to protect the moms and others from the gas. A group of military veterans showed up to protect the dads with leaf blowers who were protecting the moms protecting the protestors. And then there was this woman in the photo above who showed up naked to confront the police and federal agents. Faced with all that feminine power, at least in this event, they backed down. I don’t know her name. I don’t know her story. But she has become iconic, an awesome demonstration of courage, a brilliant metaphor reflecting and/or deflecting the impotence of our nation’s current political leadership.

One thing is perfectly clear. Things got increasingly worse when the federal agents descended on our city. And the protests got substantially larger and more violent, drawing thousands and thousands to the Portland city block surrounding the federal courthouse. Somehow, between a Mayor and a Governor who stood against the presence of federal agents in our city and other factors perhaps obscure to me, the agents have left almost entirely, and last night the protestors emerged again in large numbers and without incident. Here are the opening sentences of a news piece from Dan McCarthy of KATU news:

Portland Police Bureau says protesters, not officers, were doing the enforcing downtown Thursday night. 

Police said demonstrators put out fires and told others to stop climbing the fence in front of the federal courthouse. 

As a result, police said they didn’t have any interactions with demonstrators downtown.

There are people on my facebook newsfeed who are certain that Portland is lost, that the city is burning, that the looters and the vandals and arsonists have won, that Portland will soon become a wasteland, some anarchist hellscape. Totally misinformed, no doubt watching Hannity every night, having never seen the city for themselves, knowing not a single soul participating in this historically monumental moment to save democracy and restore it for ALL of our citizens, these poor folk remain in the dark. I, for one, have never been more proud to be a Portlander, even if my vantage point is 6 or 7 miles away from the action, just down the road a peg in Milwaukie. For a few weeks there it seemed we were at the very center of the universe.    

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #2)

Already, I find it necessary to amend the rules of the game. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, in my edition, is nearly 700 pages long. I would have you know that I am not what you could call a fast reader. Initially, I thought that each of my reaction vlogs might be about a different piece of literature. At my rate, that would mean a new reaction vlog might go up every other month or so. And while I promised in my introductory entry that I would not be reading out loud and commenting on an entire novel, it does seem kind of ridiculous to do a reaction vlog for the first four paragraphs of a novel, and then a few days later another for the first four paragraphs of a different novel, especially if the somewhat selfish goal of this project is to get myself to read more, and to read books that have been beckoning for some time! So, here is my conclusion: I intend to finish The Magic Mountain. I can see myself doing several reaction vlogs along the way. One every 50 to 100 pages, say. That way, you, the viewer, get a sense of closure and continuity. That way, I, the blogger, can finish a damn book.

Here’s another idea that might be helpful. Rather than providing a series of cold readings and reactions throughout, before each new video, I will attempt to provide some context, in other words, address what kind of twists and turns have occurred since the last reading, try to describe what I have learned that might be helpful to you as you read, watch, and listen. Ergo:

Today I read about 60 pages into The Magic Mountain. This is what I’ve learned and observed:

  • Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
  • Hans loves to smoke cigars. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
  • Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
  • Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
  • What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
  • It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the two cousins and the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads.
  • Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
  • The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.”
  • The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections.
  • The prose, again, an English translation from the original German, continues to be scintillating.

That was somewhat difficult to do economically. Perhaps it will be less necessary as we move through this tome. I sense, because the essential plot of the novel has already been laid out, that catching you up, dear reader, might not be as necessary moving forward. I could be wrong about that, but as I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion reveals that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was three or four days ago!

Meanwhile, here’s today’s reaction video to a section titled “One Word Too Many” from Chapter 3!

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The Magic Mountain (Reaction Vlog #1)

Okay, here it is. The first foray into a new series whereby I record myself reacting to a literary text I’ve never read. My first choice, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book that has sat atop my “should read” list for many, many moons now. Below you will find a video of my reading of and reaction to the first four paragraphs of the novel.

A tiny bit of background. Thomas Mann was a German novelist, born in 1875 (it was his birthday just four or five days ago), and he lived until 1955. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929. He lived in exile from Germany during World War II and spent a significant portion of his later years living in other countries, including the United States, ultimately earning American citizenship. Here’s a lovely little description from the folks at Brittanica.com about his literary legacy:

Mann was the greatest German novelist of the 20th century, and by the end of his life his works had acquired the status of classics both within and without Germany. His subtly structured novels and shorter stories constitute a persistent and imaginative enquiry into the nature of Western bourgeois culture, in which a haunting awareness of its precariousness and threatened disintegration is balanced by an appreciation of and tender concern for its spiritual achievements. Round this central theme cluster a group of related problems that recur in different forms—the relation of thought to reality and of the artist to society, the complexity of reality and of time, the seductions of spirituality, eros, and death.

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Mann/Later-novels

Again, I come to this novel by recommendation from a half a dozen writers that I love and respect who claim this particular work to be of pivotal importance to them. William Stafford, former poet laureate of Oregon and one of my literary heroes, wrote a poem for this novel. Father John Misty has a song by the same title. I’m hard pressed to think of stronger recommendations. So let’s give this a go, shall we?

Postscript:

I realize, after watching my video, which, as it should be, was the first and only take, that one of the occupational hazards of doing a literary reaction vlog might be a misreading here and there. I’m not too worried about that, but it seems appropriate to say that Hans is taking a journey by train, by boat, and then again by train in order to get to his destination. In this video, my understanding seems to be that he’s on a train the entire time, that he crosses “abysses” on a train. I think he’s on a boat over these abysses. I make another mistake in understanding that he’s on his way to Hamburg. No, he’s leaving from Hamburg, his home town, to a place called Davos-Platz. In a way, this kind of reaction vlog can be a quick study of how easy it is, even for a good reader, to quickly come to a misunderstanding, especially when speaking extemporaneously, off-the-cuff–something my students do all the time. It’s kind of embarrassing. I know how they feel.

And Oh My God. Coulda shoulda woulda, a fool’s game, I know. But I wish I would have kept going for one more paragraph. The fifth paragraph of The Magic Mountain is a doozy, and totally worth the relative slog of the first four. Not that they were a slog, but they were not, as one might say about an extremely potent novel opening, in any way scintillating. I guess, as I am discovering, one of the benefits of a literary vlog accompanied by blogger text is that a person might, if they are so inclined, write about what they failed to talk about in the video. So I’m just going to share the fifth paragraph with you here and then riff for awhile in conclusion:

Two days of travel separate this young man (and young he is, with few firm roots in life) from his everyday world, especially from what he called his duties, interests, worries and prospects–separate him far more than he had dreamed possible as he rode to the station in a hansom cab. Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state–indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and Phillistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, translation John E. Woods;

Holy crap. And I say, holy crap, not because of some earth-shattering plot development or character reveal, no, but because of this almost Proustian turn from simple exposition about Hans on a train on his way to Davos-Platz to some profound philosophical exploration about the nature of travel, the way movement through physical space from one spot to another can have monumental effects on a person’s character–in the same way time can–only faster. Anyone who has significantly traveled could attest to the truth of this. I have not significantly traveled, but I know that the first time I flew by myself from one coast of this continent to the other, my life changed irrevocably. I transformed from a pedant to a vagabond–or something along those lines.

This fifth paragraph makes me believe that this novel will be a philosophical one, which excites me; I’ve always been more fond of IDEA than of STORY.

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I’ve Got An Idea: The Literary Reaction Vlog

If you’ve perused the video introduction above, you get the gist of the idea. In keeping with the new interest in the REACTION vlog, in which a person reacts in real time to a media artifact like video or music that they have never seen or heard before, I propose to try a reaction vlog to a literary text.

I have a common disorder whereby I purchase more books than I can possibly read*. I’ve got books on the shelf I bought two decades ago that I have never cracked open. I buy books sometimes because I like the author, because they’ve been recommended to me, because I’ve read a review, because they were written by a friend, or, often, because it is a book I feel I “should” have read. My brand of the disorder is heightened when I find a book I “should” read published in a limited or “fine” edition. So, not only does the volume sit on the shelf for a very long time beckoning to be read, but it also looks very attractive while doing it. I’m not sure what the psychology is here: maybe I think I will be more likely to read a book if it is beautiful to look at and hold and smell. At any rate, if this IS the modus operandi at play here, it hasn’t worked especially well up to this point. The books beckon, they look nice, and they remain on the shelf.

What I’m saying is that I don’t have to look very far and hard for a book I have not read.

You might be thinking, okay, it’s one thing to watch a video blogger react to a song or a video clip, but there’s no way I’m sitting through a video in which some guy reads out loud while reacting in real time to an entire novel. Let me set your mind at ease: I would not do that. Under only one condition would I do that: if I was being paid. Nope, not my job. My job is primarily to amuse myself, get some exposure to some texts that I have long wished to dive into, and hopefully, provide some entertainment, hilarity, and a light dose of instruction for any willing viewer. I have set for myself a certain number of ground rules:

1. I will select books I have never read, promise.

2. I will only read and react to short passages: the opening page or paragraph, a single poem, a section of a long poem, an excerpt from an essay.

3. I will not choose pieces by my contemporaries, unless one of them requests that I do so.

4. I will focus primarily on texts that are considered “classics.” And by that I mean works that have been widely read and revered, works that remain so to this day, and perhaps, works that were published pre-21st century.

5. None of the above is written in stone.

6. If this is a train wreck, which is a strong possibility, I will stop doing it immediately.

I would be amenable to suggestions or requests, although it would have to be a book that I already have in the collection (I’m not buying any more books, I’ve decided, at least in the short term, unless it is a book written by a friend). But I think I have my sights set (to begin with) on a famous German novel of the early 20th century, The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. It is a book on the “should read” list and has been nearly at the top of that list for many, many years, a novel that, for some reason, has come across the radar as a seminal text for many writers that I admire. We’ll see how this goes. Onward and upward. Wish me luck. I hope you are amused and at least a little bit edified!

*Just learned that there is a word for this disorder. It’s called Tsundoku, a Japanese word for people who buy more books than they can read!

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Journal of the Plague Year: #21

Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, has made an executive order that as of July 1st, all Oregonians must wear face masks in indoor public places, or outdoors whenever there are concentrations of people and 6 foot distancing cannot be maintained. As if on cue, my DEVO face masks were in the mailbox the day that order was announced. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had face masks for the better part of a month or two now already, and I have been wearing them, long before the governor’s call, religiously in public places. But those were not DEVO masks. I understand that I am now part of the movement, inevitable, towards the protective-mask-against-the-coronavirus as fashion accessory. I have no problem with this. If we have to do this awkward, uncomfortable thing in the name of public health, we might as well have some fun with it. Yes? No? Yes! I’ve seen some pretty stellar designs. And like the concert t-shirt, a mask with a favorite artist, writer, or band might be a cool way to wave your freak flag, to announce your fan loyalty, to promote your favorite thing. I love DEVO, I have loved DEVO for a number of decades now, and even though they are not my favorite band of all time, they were the first cool band, at least on my radar, to merchandise protective masks. So I got them. Meanwhile, it’s safe to conclude that any individual who believes that a face mask is an affront to their civil liberties is just a very stupid person. You’ve seen the videos of these people throwing tantrums in grocery stores. I have never seen such idiocy. One might conclude, as I do, that in strange and trying times, we see the worst in people come crawling to the surface. I think the opposite is true, as well. We are seeing heroism of all stripes on a daily basis as folks decide to do the right thing in the face of the pandemic and in the face of racial injustice.

It’s a strange time. Things start to loosen up and reopen. While you can’t go to a movie or see a concert, and live music seems to have completely died, you can get your haircut. You can eat at a restaurant serving clients at half capacity. You can go to your massage therapist. Most businesses are reopening to a degree. But in the world of the virus, things are not improving; in fact, they are getting terrifyingly worse. There are states in the union that ignored the virus altogether or that opened up early, and those places are paying the piper. There are only 14 states in the union, the last I heard, where the curve is flattening. I understand that Oregon is one of these, but it doesn’t seem to square with our stats that indicate a significant uptick of cases. And, of course, tragically, the country’s death toll has reached about 130,000, more than twice the casualties of the American War in Vietnam. And while all of this is happening, there are young people playing a game whereby huge parties are thrown and the winner is the first to contract COVID-19. There are folks who argue that the mask protocol is a devilish conspiracy and a violation of their civil liberties. There’s a president holding a 4th of July event at Mt. Rushmore and refusing to mandate mask-wearing for attendees. A former candidate for the President of the United States, who has been squarely anti-mask, is in the hospital with the virus. A republican member of the senate actually advocated the dissolution of the team of experts who are charged with informing the public about how to stay safe because their advice runs counter to “what the president wants.” The stupidity is astounding.

There is something uniquely American about this catastrophe. We seem to be, or many of us seem to be, so short-sighted and selfish, so unwilling to be inconvenienced, so entitled, and so resistant to facts that butt up against our personal wishes and desire for liberty, that we would willingly sacrifice our safety and the safety of our most vulnerable citizens in order to have that party on the beach, to go to that club, to go to that church, to attend that rally, or to shop without a mask. And I say it is uniquely American, especially in the Age of The Donald, because the same thing is happening nowhere else in the world, certainly, not in first world economies. It boggles the mind. I just thought of that Guided by Voices tune–“Everybody’s got a hold on hope/It’s the last thing that’s holding me.” Really, it just popped into my head. I think it might be easy and understandable to fall into despair during this time, 2020, the year that has proven to be such a suck festival. But if we look around and pay special attention, we might find lots of reasons to be hopeful. Maybe it might be good to make a list of the things, globally, socially, and personally that don’t suck. That’s your homework assignment. And here’s another lyric from Father John Misty’s “Pure Comedy” album, a lyric and a melody that chokes me up every time, one that, invariably reminds me that there are always places to find hope and joy, in a drink, a friend that you love, a Talking Heads tune; even the end of the world is no competition:

And, oh, I read somewhere
That in twenty years
More or less
This human experiment will reach its violent end
But I look at you
As our second drinks arrive
The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place”
And it’s a miracle to be alive
One more time
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear
There’s nothing to fear

 

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