“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
BOOK POWER by Gwendolyn Brooks
BOOKS FEED AND CURE AND CHORTLE AND COLLIDE
In all this willful world of thud and thump and thunder man’s relevance to books continues to declare.
Books are meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower, steel, stitch, and cloud and clout, and drumbeats in the air.
If you have never heard of or read Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, now might be the time to discover her newsletter. In lockdown, we have the opportunity to read much more than we usually do. Why is reading important?
“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,”wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit asserted in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write. But whatever our poetic images and metaphors for the varied ways in which books transform us — “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” per Franz Kafka, or “proof that humans are capable of working magic,”per Carl Sagan — the one indisputable constant is that they do transform us, in ways which we may not always be able to measure but can always feel in the core of our being.
I love to read. I probably read a book a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is a great distraction when the noise of the world is coming at me too fast and too furious. Most days, I prefer a good book to TV or Netflix. When I read a wonderful piece of literature like Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, my breath is taken away. Being a writer myself, I find myself admiring how each sentence is made up of everyday words placed in perfect order to bring a vision to mind and to feel like one is there. That is genius.
When I read a good mystery writer, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid (some might say she is more thriller), and now Tana French, I am transported to a world I hope I never visit but get a glimpse of. The best mystery writers write literature not just a fast paced, stay awake all night, who done it. And when the books are a series as with Peter Robinson or the great Donna Leon, whose Ispetattore Brunetti is beloved the world over, we become part of a family one only knows from reading. It is such a treat and we await the next chapter of the “family’s fortunes” as one waits for Christmas as a child.
This lockdown will end. The pandemic will pass eventually. Maybe some of us will have slowed down enough that we love it, don’t want to speed up again as before Covid-19 made it’s deathly visit on earth. Many of us will look to re-invent ourselves into what we’ve learned about the best of ourselves. If there is one constant in life it’s that things change–always. But reading, and learning from reading, and being inspired by reading is always available to us. So I encourage you to start now. Read an inspiring book during the day and an escapist book at night. The worlds you will travel will almost make up for the traveling we cannot do at the moment.
My friend, Janet Hulstrand, a wonderful writer, sent out a blog today that championed buying books and supporting authors. I am reblogging her blog as no one could say it better. I would only add that the wonderful website: http://www.bookshop.org supports independent bookstores and even gives a percentage of its profits to the support of these wonderful bookstores trying to stay alive during the Pandemic. I wish we had it over here.
Buy books if you can afford to. If you have “too many books”… (But is there really such a thing? Most writers, and even many readers, don’t really think so…Too few bookshelves, certainly. But too many books? Ridiculous!). But anyway, if you think you have too many books, well then, buy them, read them, then give them to friends, or better yet to the library or other places that accept used books–hospitals? prisons? schools?
Buy new books if you can afford to. The reason for this is that if you buy used books, the only entity to make any money is whomever is selling the book. The publisher gets nothing: the author gets nothing. This makes it hard for authors and publishers to stay alive! So do what you can. If you really need to buy used books (and believe me, I understand if you do) you can still write reviews, and that will help authors and publishers.
Review books on Amazon or GoodReads. I think it is absolutely wonderful that we no longer have to rely only on professional book reviewers to tell us about books. Having said that, I think it’s only right that if we’re going to be influencing people’s decisions about whether or not to buy (or read) a book we should be fair about it. Here is a post I wrote about how to be fair when writing a review. (Most people don’t know HOW MUCH these reviews help writers: they help A LOT! And they are so easy to do. I explain how easy it is also, in that same post.)
Buy from indie bookstores, in person or online. My own personal favorite indies are the Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore in Paris, and BonjourBooksDC and Politics and Prose in the Washington DC area. But there are wonderful indie bookstores pretty much everywhere, and they need our support! If you’re not near a store, you can buy books online from many indies: and even if your local indie doesn’t sell online, you can support indie bookstores by purchasing books online from IndieBound or Bookshop.org.And now just two please-don’ts:
Please don’t ask your writer friends if you can have free copies of their books (!) They need their friends and family members to BUY their books, and then tell all their friends about the book, and write reviews of their books, and give their friends gifts of the book, and…like that. (You can trust me on this. They really do!! Writing books is not such an easy way to make a living: indeed, this is a huge understatement.)
Please don’t go to indie bookstores to browse and then buy the books online from you-know-who. How do you think the indie booksellers are going to pay the rent on that lovely space they are providing for you, where you can hang out and spend time with other booklovers, and go to cool book events, if you don’t buy books from them? Hmm? I mean, really. Think it through! This post spells out some of the many reasons why it’s good to support indie bookstores. Well, anyway, I hope as you consider your holiday shopping this year, you will consider doing some of the above. It’s been a hard year, especially for small businesses, including indie bookstores. So I trust you will do what you can to help them out. They deserve it!
One of many wonderful things about living in Paris is the wonderful people I get to meet; singers and musicians from the 60s; authors: famous and to be famous; playwrites and actors. I wrote about one of my favorite people, Elliott Murphy, when I saw a documentary about him The Second Act of Elliott Murphy in 2017. Filmed by Spanish director Jorge Arenillas, the documentary talks of Elliott’s transition from the US to Paris. Elliott is not only a prolific musician–he has 38 albums, a number of books, live albums–he is a kind and generous person. He recently produced a new album, a creative stretch for him. But let him tell you about it:
Hi Elliott, I was planning to repost the blog I just received announcing the release of The Middle Kingdom, your latest album. But I thought it might be fun to ask you some questions instead.
I’ve got plenty of time on my hands to answer any and all questions. Covid-19 has provided me with the longest vacation in almost 50 years!
This album is a bit different than your many earlier albums. Why have you chosen poetry for this musical project?
The Middle Kingdom is probably close to my 40th album, and is my first entirely “spoken word” album although I have had a few songs that were more spoken than sung. One of the prominent in that category is “On Elvis Presley’s Birthday” which I still regularly perform in concert and is a fan favorite. Also, I had recently completed recording an “audiobook” of my memoir JUST A STORY FROM AMERICA [soon available on Audible.com etc] which required a week of narration recording so I had grown familiar with the process of recording a spoken voice as opposed to a singing voice. And then when the confinement kicked in I was looking for a way to continue working musically with Olivier Durand who has been my brilliant guitarist and musical partner for over 25 years and I had published two books of poetry “The Middle Kingdom” and “Forty Poems in Forty Days” so in a moment of inspiration provided by my muse I thought, why not record a selection of poems and then let Olivier find musical backing in his studio in Le Havre which he did brilliantly. The final step was for my son and producer, Gaspard Murphy, to mix it at his beautiful Paris studio. And to be honest, I’ve been amazed at the incredibly positive response the album has generated.
How do the wonderful Corona Couch Concerts fit in?
I’m actually considering re-starting the “Corona Couch Concerts – The Return!” tonight at 8pm Paris time but I need to find something new to throw into the mix. The experience of presenting 56 Corona Couch Concerts on Facebook and Instagram during the first lock-down where I not only sang 3 or 4 songs each night but also acted as a kind of “talk show host” made me open to doing a spoken word album. Maybe I’ll find a way to fit all of this into The Return … (Elliott found a way and you can hear The Return on Instagram and FaceBook @elliottmurphy tonight and every night at 8pm CET)
I’ve noticed that during this pandemic, many friends and others have turned to poets like David Whyte and Mary Oliver for soothing answers to existential questions.
I love to hear of poets I am not so familiar with. I will check out David and Mary. One of my favorites is Richard Tillinghast. By the way, there is a great album of Jack Kerouac reading while Steve Allen plays piano which was definitely a precursor to The Middle Kingdom.
Now you’ve joined the frey!
I think you mean the Fray … but you may be referring to Glen Frey the late member of the Eagles who was a very cool guy indeed!
But most of us will always think rock n roll when we think of Elliott Murphy.
And well they should!
Can you respond to that?
I have been floating down the rock ‘n roll river since deep into last century. It’s the reason I live in Paris although France is not really a rock ‘n roll country – more jazz in my opinion.
Have you been able to perform since the worst of the lockdown was lifted?
We did two shows in October – one in Brittany and another in the Paris suburbs – and although it was a bit surreal to walk out on stage and behold a sea of blue masks it was wonderful to create magic with the public. Now my shows in November and December have been cancelled, or hopefully moved to the Spring. I’ve been on the road my whole adult life and usually play between 60 – 100 shows a year so to go so long without a show is quite a shock to my system but not all negative. I always complained to my wife that I needed more time off and now I’ve got it. So I’ve been working on a new novel which I’m co-writing with Peter Redwhite who has translated two of my books into Spanish.
You wrote a wonderful vignette about Bobby Vee and Bob Dylan. Can you repeat it here.
Here you go:
Poetry in Motion was a 1961 hit song for both Johnny Tillitson and Bobby Vee; the two of them early rock ‘n roll pioneers who put a tasteful touch of country music into the musical mix in the same vein as Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Tillitson was originally from Florida and featured the legendary Nashville piano player Floyd Kramer on his version of the song while Bobby was a genuine teen idol from North Dakota who, while still early in his career, hired a Minnesota musician who went by the name Elston Gunn to briefly tour with him and his band. Elston was actually Robert Zimmerman who became Bob Dylan and who mentions Vee in his biography Chronicles.
A friend back in Oakland, Ca wrote to me this morning asking me if I was ok. He included a photo from the Associated Press that was titled: “Parisians flee, sidewalks empty, as France enters lockdown.” The photo showed a solitary figure walking an empty street and everything was grey. My friend said “Frightening to see this–hope you’re holding out ok.”
It has been an adventure of sorts. Wednesday evening, 8pm CET, President Macron announced that France was going back into lockdown. Although he claims that it will be slightly different than the last time, I haven’t seen what the difference is. I was still in Normandie and knew I had to get home. The lockdown started at midnight on Friday. I was able to get a train reservation for Saturday morning and began a whirlwind, frenetic packing generated by my sense of urgency. But as each hour went by, the urgency subsided. I was told that the shelves were sparse and so I packed a full bag of my groceries that I hadn’t yet used. By the time I left on Saturday morning, I had my one fairly large suitcase, my cat inside her carrier which is soft and can be worn over the shoulder, my ‘market’ bag in which I carry things I might need during the day, the full bag of groceries and another bag that held all the overflow.
I turned my car in at the train station and loaded myself up with all my ‘stuff’. I got about five feet and I knew it was all too much and too heavy. I started to do something I hate in myself and hadn’t done in a long time. I sighed very, very loudly, tried to look as miserable and helpless as I felt, tilted to the left with the weight of the grocery bag, sighed a little louder, all in hopes that someone would come rushing to my rescue. I must have looked a bit lunatic if not homeless, and I’m sure anyone who passed me gave me a wide berth. I made very slow progress. I realized I would have to go up and over the bridge to get to the quai where the train to Paris was. I was close to tears. Someone did say there was an elevator but didn’t offer to help. I was halfway across the bridge still doing my Sarah Bernhardt act when an employee of SNCF asked where I was headed, grabbed two of my bags, and, asking which car I was in, deposited me in Voiture 5. The train left within 30 seconds of my being inside.
Of course, I pulled the same stunt walking to the taxi queue in Paris. This time, a young woman stopped and helped me. I was home in my apartment three hours after leaving my friends’ home in Normandie. Ultimately I was glad for all the groceries as I had no energy to shop for food on Saturday.
Sunday morning, Day 3 of Confinement Deux, I went for my usual morning walk at 10:30am. On my walk, I pass a parcours with exercise machines in the Jardin du Ranelagh. My habit is to stop for about fifteen minutes, and every other day work out my arms and, on alternate days, my legs. The parcours was packed with people. I’m not sure if the area would be considered a space for gathering but there were well over thirty people. Three-quarters were not wearing masks. I got on one machine, felt scared, got off and went on my way to finish my walk. This morning, it was the same thing on a much smaller level, probably twelve people total, all the men not wearing masks.
Current Covid-19 numbers in France, according to the Health Minister: 1 new positive every 2 seconds; 1 hospitalisation every 30 seconds; 1 death every 4 minutes
When I left Paris on October 14th, everyone was wearing a mask. Was this a rebellion? I noticed a number of people not wearing masks just walking or wearing the mask under their nose. Not only did my neighbourhood NOT look like the photo my friend sent, it seemed teeming with life. Av. Mozart, my shopping street, had more people than usual. Only stores that sold necessities were open so my little clothing store was closed but the florists were open. They were not open the first time around. I was able to purchase my weekly bunch of flowers and that made me happy.
Macron said that the confinement would last one month but everything would be reviewed in fifteen days. If the cases of Covid-19 had stopped rising and looked to be diminishing, there was the possibility of some of the restrictions being relaxed. That is not likely to happen. Countries around France are following suit. The UK isn’t calling it a lockdown but much the same rules are in place. Germany is in lockdown. Spain and Italy had cities in lockdown for weeks already. Macron has said that this second wave is and will continue to be much more devastating.
Last Spring, the days were getting longer. It was a novel experience and people all over the world went out on their balconies to sing and clap for the healthcare workers. Now the days are getting shorter, the wind howls at night and no one is celebrating anything. And, for US citizens, tomorrow is a day that almost everyone has been awaiting for four years, many of us have been working at getting out the vote, making sure everyone over here knows they must register anew every year, and that it is an honour to be able to vote. So Please Vote. Now we, and the rest of the world, are holding our collective breath both hoping and fearing the results.
So, to my friend in Oakland, I will respond, “Yes, I’m holding up. My Paris doesn’t look like that photo and I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Both politically and health wise, I think we are in for a long, cold winter. Je t’embrasse.”
I woke up the other morning and my thumb was in so much pain, I couldn’t use it. Amazing how much one cannot do without a thumb. Maybe it’s Carpal Tunnel. Maybe it’s arthritis which many of us have rightfully earned by using our bodies to the fullest!!! I thought I’d take the opportunity to show photos of this area of Normandie which is so rich in color, in animals and known for it’s stud farms. Enjoy
And just for the fun of it, I will end with my centrepiece with tail.
As of Saturday, Paris will have a 9pm curfew. So will eight other cities in France. Germany and Ireland are joining the emergency measures to slow down the quickly rising number of cases of Covid-19. Hospitals are at capacity. “Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called on Parisians to respect the measures and “remain united”. “Faced with the heavy circulation of #Covid-19 in France and in Paris, we must remain united and apply the measures announced by the President of the Republic, even if they are harsh. It is a new ordeal, and we will face it, together and in solidarity with caregivers”, she tweeted.” France24.com. Macron says the second wave is coming on fast.
So, thinking that this might be happening, I left Paris on Tuesday and came to Normandie where my friends live. They are visiting their first born grand-child and I am kitty sitting and housesitting. It is glorious here. The trees are golden and greenish and many bushes are flaming red. The ivy that has crept up the walls of this house is burnt umber, deep maroon and yellow. It is completely quiet. The apple trees have already produced buckets of apples and I get to gather ones that still remain on trees and make apple puree tomorrow. The mornings are crisp and cold. The temperature rises as much as 20o as the sun rises and warms the air. On my morning walk, I see many of the same horses I saw this summer but they are friskier, dancing around, nosing each other and cantering in circles. What a wonderful place to escape the curfew even if just for a few weeks.
In the evenings, I have been watching Netflix. Wednesday night, I watched a documentary called The Social Dilemma. I felt smacked in the gut. I’ve been wary of Facebook for awhile but I post this blog there and I have a Facebook page for my book: Saving Sara. I have tried to learn Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, and it is definitely a younger person’s thing. And now there is Emily in Paris, also on Netflix which is a walking advertisement for Instagram. After watching the documentary last night, I understand why I’m wary of Facebook but now I know I should be scared shitless. Dozens of ex-technologians of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Uber, Pinterest talk about how what they designed was meant to be fun for all of us but now has turned into a lawless monster that knows EVERYTHING about all of us. It is Big Brother for real. It is the promotion of so much hate and divisiveness. If I sound like I drank the kool-aid, it was not just believable, it all made perfect sense. The documentary illustrated it all with a docudrama of a family in which two children become addicted to their phones. I am in awe of the people who have taken a stand against this worst idea of Capitalism, that the almighty profit is God. There are no laws that govern what these companies can do. Watch this documentary: The Social Dilemma and be scared. https://www.humanetech.com/the-social-dilemma
Thursday night, I watched another documentary called My Octopus Teacher. This documentary is about a filmmaker who forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world. It is as feel good as the other is frightening. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3s0LTDhqe5A
The filming is so beautifully done and the connection between the filmmaker and the octopus is told with such love that I found myself falling in love with the octopus also. I laughed and I cried and I was mesmerised. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Last night, I watched The Trial of the Chicago 7. For some reason I thought it was also going to be a documentary but it turned out to be a film made for Netflix by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame. If he was trying to make a political statement, it worked for me. I was in Chicago in 1968, the summer of the Democratic Convention but barely remember these events. As this election grows closer, I find myself fearing that awful violence may follow. I remind myself that violence was happening all the time in 1968–most of it instigated by the police. This film tells the story of those days of the Convention in flashbacks. The trial took place after Nixon was elected and he was determined to make an example of the seven Vietnam protestors by sentencing them to prison. As soon as I graduated college in 1969, I left the United States. Both my parents wanted me to stay and join in the protests to end the war. My mother called me a parasite as I was just hitching around Europe not really paying any real attention to the political situation. I was much more interested in sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
When it came to showing the police beating on the crowds with their night sticks, Sorkin put in real footage. It was shocking then and it is shocking now. Fifty years ago and what has changed? The Republicans have gotten craftier and sneakier at winning elections. The Democrats have made an art out of shooting themselves in the foot.
The acting was superb. Mark Rylance, who played Cromwell in Wolf Hall, was Kunstler, the lawyer defending the 7. Reviewers may not agree with me but his American accent was very good. Sacha Baron Cohen played Abbie Hoffman. I thought he was terrific.
And that’s how I’m passing the time in France as I await the election and respect the severity of Covid-19
A reader asked if I would say something about voting from abroad. I will do my best. What I’ve learned, I learned from Democrats Abroad which is a huge organization. Right now, all the energy of Dems Abroad is focused on making sure that all voters have requested their ballots. We can get them snail-mail or by e-mail. Information, state by state, on voting from abroad can be found at: https://www.votefromabroad.org
As a voter who still votes in California but lives in Paris, it is mandatory for me to register every year. On my on-line registration form, I was asked how I would like to receive my ballot. I asked that mine come by e-mail. I read recently that a good 25% of absentee ballots get thrown out because the voter didn’t do something correctly. Dems Abroad Paris has set up tables with volunteers to help people walk through filling out their ballot step by step. On Sunday, phone lines are open all day long. Volunteers are answering any questions a voter might have.
Unlike voters in the US, we can vote twice. It is a backup ballot known as the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot (FWAB). Volunteers are set up in two places in Paris to walk people through that process. At the volunteer table, I was given two pieces of paper. I filled out the first with all my pertinent information: what state I vote in, how to identify me and my signature. The second piece of paper is a ballot with only federal offices. I filled that out with my choice of President, Senator (if someone was running), House of Representatives. Once I filled that out, I put it in an envelope and wrote Ballot on the front. I folded up the first piece of paper and, along with the envelope, put it in a second envelope. I addressed that to my Registrar of Voters in Oakland, California.
Why can we vote twice? The back-up vote is opened ONLY if the the absentee ballot doesn’t reach me in time to meet the voting requirements. At the time that I sent in my FWAB, I had not received my ballot. It has since arrived. Since I asked that it come by e-mail, I had to do all my choices on-line. When I was satisfied that it was complete, the program put it onto one piece of paper which I printed. I then went to the Poste and sent it with tracking. Some states allow you send back by e-mail. California only allows fax or snail mail.
I will probably wait three weeks and then go into the website of Alameda County Registrar of Voters. I can put in my name, address, and the end part of my Social Security number and I will get a message if my ballot has arrived. With all that I have heard about the beleaguered postal system, I felt it necessary to allow five weeks for it to arrive on or before Nov. 3.
Dems Abroad Paris is very active. Since we cannot gather inside with more than ten people, all the volunteer tables are outside in front of sympathetic stores. Shakespeare and Co., in the 5th arrondissement, has had volunteers helping Americans vote every Saturday since the beginning of September.
I will finish up this blog by telling you about something that I think is wonderful. On Monday, the website and app, http://www.TenPercent.com (a wonderful tool for learning and practicing mindfulness mediation) created something called The 2020 Election Sanity Guide. Started by Dan Harris of Channel ABC, ten percent will have a podcast each Monday in October and meditations available all the time for those of us whose brains are fried by the onslaught of information, the viciousness of campaigning and the weariness that makes one feel as if this will never end. “This guide will help you stay sane and engaged during the 2020 US Elections, without burning out. There’s something for everyone in the resources below.” says the webpage. And below there are talks and mediations and podcasts and more. Check it out. There will be a daily gift to us for the last seven days before the election. Even if you have never thought about meditation, you will enjoy the talks and podcasts. Dan Harris is funny, irreverant and knowledgeable.
Stay safe, maintain distance, be smart and stay well,
The following is a repost from The Guardian, September 14. It is still timely. And I’m a bit more than biased about the quality of the writing as the author is my sister. Enjoy.
Republicans shouldn’t be immune from being called out for their inconsistency. Let’s not forget they once said cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harderMitch McConnell’s sounded ‘all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election’ after the failure of the ‘skinny’ Covid-19 relief bill. Photograph: Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Rex/ShutterstockMon 14 Sep 2020 08.44 EDT
The 31 million Americans struggling with unemployment today are not a whit less desperate and fearful now that Mitch McConnell’s “skinny” Covid-19 relief bill failed to pass the US Senate. Thursday’s performative theatrics did little more than provide cover to vulnerable Republicans and add one more day to the now six weeks since Senate Republicans refused to extend the extra $600 in Covid-related weekly jobless benefits. With McConnell sounding all but liberated from any more pressure to show compassion before the election, and the media’s attention pinned to shinier Trumpian objects, it is even more imperative to refocus on the crisis at hand and to dig beneath the hollow excuses for such demonstrable indifference on the part of lawmakers. It is time to find an answer to the question: how is such unnecessary suffering justified?The danger is now clear: Trump is destroying democracy in broad daylightJonathan FreedlandRead more
That these charges persist despite significant evidence to the contrarytestifies to the power of the conservative creed that few things in life are more perilous than excess government compassion: “unearned” income such as unemployment benefits perversely undermines recipients’ self-discipline and willingness to work, leaving them even worse off. It is a self-evident truth of human nature, conservatives avow, that relieving the suffering of those in need induces dependence and indolence, whereas deprivation incentivizes labor.Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Here’s the secret sauce: since that which is “self-evident”, such as ideas about human nature, can be neither proved nor disproved, such truths are conveniently immune to debunking evidence. Thus they persist.
They should not, however, be immune from being called out for their stunning inconsistency. In 2017 these same Republicans trumpeted a radically different truth about human nature when they pronounced that cutting taxes on the wealthy would incentivize them to work harder, invest more and spur rapid economic growth.
But how is it that extra money incentivizes the rich to become paragons of moral virtue and economic rainmakers, whereas for working people it incentivizes them to become social parasites and economic saboteurs? How can there be one human nature for the 1%, and another for the rest of us?
It’s a question too rarely asked. So deeply rooted in Anglo-American political culture is this bifurcated view of human nature that it’s treated almost like natural law. In fact, it’s a product of history, originally designed to solve a problem not unlike our own, and tied to the early capitalist need for a new industrial workforce.
In the last decades of the 18th century, the English upper classes revolted against the tax burden of the centuries-old system of poor relief – so named not because it was welfare but because “the poor” were simply those who had to work for a living. As protection against cyclical structural unemployment, its recipients bore no stigma, and access to its benefits was considered a right.
When the need for jobless benefits escalated under the pressures of early industrialization, angry taxpayers found an advocate in Thomas Malthus, who turned centuries of social policy on its head by asserting that poverty was caused not by systemic unemployment but by government assistanceitself. Providing the template for today’s Steve Mnuchins and Lindsey Grahams, he explained that aid to the jobless perversely incentivized them not to seek work.
Malthus based his argument on a novel view of human nature: society consisted of two “races”: property owners and laborers. While the first embodied the high morality of Enlightenment rationality, the latter were not moral actors but motivated only by their biological instincts. When hungry, they were industrious; when full, they lazed. They did little more than think through their bodies.
As in the natural world, maintaining chronic scarcity was the necessary motor of the whole system. Since the pangs of hunger alone disciplined the poor to work, if you remove that scarcity by “artificial” means – and nothing was more artificial than government assistance – the incentive to work dissolves. But it was not enough to simply abolish public assistance, although Malthus is rightfully credited for his role in doing just that. He also railed apocalyptically against reducing scarcity through charity. Society’s very future depended on the unemployed being fully exposed to the harsh discipline of the labor market.
Malthus’s enduring contribution to social policy was thus to make hunger the virtuous suffering that underpins a productive workforce, and “too much” the virtuous luxury that unleashes the social contributions of the rich. Armed with these two views of humanity – the rich depicted as noble paragons, the poor as inherently indolent and parasitic – conservative social policy continues to declaim the unfounded “truth” that a strong economy depends on inflicting pain on workers while providing government largesse to the rich.
The most recent iteration began with Reagan’s massive tax cuts in tandem with his attacks on “welfare queens”. It continued through the derisive conservative trope of “makers and takers” to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” of “entitled” “tax shirkers” to former House speaker John Boehner’s 2014 claim that the jobless think “I really don’t have to work … I’d rather just sit around” to today’s tax-cutting Republicans, who announced that they will extend jobless benefits “over our dead bodies”.
To be sure, today’s policymakers would be hard pressed to name the Malthusian roots of their belief in the perils of compassion. But that makes it no less urgent to expose their policies as based on nothing more than historical fiction. For there is a darker message lurking within this view of human nature: Reducing working people to their bodily instincts robs them of their moral worth and, as we know from how our “essential” workers have been treated, makes them utterly disposable.
Margaret Somers is Professor of Sociology and History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her most recent book, co-authored with Fred Block, is The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique (Harvard, 2016)
When I first understood that Covid-19 was real, deadly, and had become a pandemic, I challenged myself to write this blog twice a week. I wanted to keep a record of the reported events in the USA and France and how each county was responding to the information. I also wanted to record my own responses to both the information and how people in general were handling such upsetting news. I got off to a good start. Then, on May 1, my computer broke down. I had to use my iPad to write my blogs and it took me twice as long, sometimes even longer. My blog went to once a week. After two months, my new computer arrived. Then it was July and summer had arrived in France. I took my restful vacations which I have previously described. If I was lucky, the blog came out every other week.
In the beginning of September, every time I sat down to write a blog, whatever idea I had become old news. It takes two or three days to write a blog–first in draft form, finding good photos, revising it and then hitting send. But events happen faster than I can think. Annie Lamott, the great essayist and author from Northern California, advises writers to carry around index cards and write one’s ideas on them. So I have many index cards that say ‘The Postal Service in the US’, ‘Covid cases rising in France’, ‘GOTV (Get Out The Vote)’, ‘Voter suppression’, ‘new rules in France re: Covid’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Trump won’t agree to leave White House if he loses’,etc, etc. It feels like things happen so fast and I have no energy to write as I lick my virtual wounds from the incessant bombardment of ‘news’.
Then I got sick. First, I just had aches at the base of my neck. Each day, they grew more painful. A friend, a doctor, suggested I might need a chiropractor, that I might be getting some problem with my spine. After five days of the aches circling my neck, I starting blowing my nose and recognised the signs of what I call my yearly “terrible cold.” I went straight to bed and slept or I curled up on my couch watching old BBC mysteries on YouTube. I woke up in the middle of that first night and thought “this could be Covid-19. It’s not the classic symptoms but they say it can mimic most anything.” So I hauled myself to the computer and e-mailed my doctor’s office telling her how sick I was. I knew that she wouldn’t want me coming in but where and how could I get tested? About three hours later, I received a response with a Google map of laboratories that were screening with the caveat that there might be long lines and possible waits of up to five days for a result. I could barely sit up for ten minutes much less get myself up and out to stand in a long line.
Thus started about 60 hours of feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I wrote some friends and said how sick I was and that it was actually quite scary not knowing if I might have the virus. With two exceptions, they wrote back: “sorry you aren’t feeling well, hope you are better in the morning.” Whaat?? I just told you I’m scared and maybe I have the virus and that’s all you have to say to me. More ammunition for Poor Me. Three days passed. I didn’t hear from my doctor and I still didn’t know anything. I would run down the classic Covid symptoms in my head. I didn’t have a fever, I hadn’t lost my sense of taste or smell, my cough didn’t go into my lungs or chest. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I would have had no doubt that I just had a bad cold. But being the extraordinary times that we live in, I didn’t want to be so arrogant as to be sure of anything.
By the fourth day of being scared, angry, sorry for myself and having no one to really talk to, my friend Barbara started hounding me with calls. “Are you alright? Has your doctor called? Please call me and tell me how you are?” I had stopped looking at e-mails and voice mails cuz it hurt too much. But there was another part of me that wanted to punish people for not caring enough, for not realising how scared I was. I woke up in the middle of the night, realising how childish I was being and texted Barbara with the latest. The latest being that I had gotten the name of another doctor from two women that I respect. I couldn’t get an appointment until the following week.
By the sixth day, I was feeling better. I wasn’t sleeping the entire day but I was staying put in my apartment. I had developed a new respect for this virus. Before I got sick, I was following all the guidelines but I didn’t know anyone who had gotten seriously ill and died. Other than seeing others in masks, the world seemed somewhat ordinary. The virus had become political and that’s how I thought of it. Getting sick, living alone, feeling such fear changed my perspective completely. I still didn’t know if I had the virus but I was definitely on the mend. But could I be around others?
Two weeks after I had first gotten the neck aches, I headed for a laboratory. I had a book with me, a magazine, my journal and was ready to spend hours waiting in line if that was what would happen. About three blocks from my home, I passed three women waiting in a socially distanced line. I looked up and the building said Mozart Laboratoire….I asked one of the women if they were doing the screening and she said yes. So I stood in line with them. Fifty-five minutes later, I walked out having had the screening and been given instructions on how to get the results the next day. It took that long because I had arrived at lunch hour and half the waiting time was for the staff to return from lunch. If I had known that there was a lab three blocks away would I have been able to drudge up the energy to get tested earlier? Probably not but …. those questions that have no answers. My doctor still hadn’t called or written to see how I was. She wasn’t going to hear from me either.
The next day I got a negative test result. The following day, I met my new doctor and, today, almost four weeks since I first started getting sick, I’m feeling human. I’ve been trying to build up energy and I’ve been thinking a lot. Between the guidelines of staying safe and well because of the pandemic, the craziness of the politics and the closeness of the election; between the fears of being sick, living alone and the fears of post-election days, it’s not possible for a body not to be under tremendous stress. Only it’s probably built up slowly and I certainly didn’t think I was any more stressed than usual. The fact that I stayed sick so long is certainly proof otherwise. These are not just strange and extraordinary times, these are vulnerable and dangerous times. Healthwise, it’s incumbent upon us to maintain as good physical health as we possibly can. Mentally and emotionally, it’s a balancing act of paying attention, taking action without getting swept up into the vortex of total insanity that is the United States these days. And the UK isn’t far behind.
If I wasn’t black and blue enough already, RBG had to go and die. It makes one wonder if there is a God and if there is, what is the plan. I heard someone say in a meditation class “Here we are in this thing called Life. How do we do it with kindness and love?” Kindness and love. Those two things seem so far away from the world that is happening. But it’s as good an approach as any that I can think of to approach each day not knowing what zinger the news will bring us. Not knowing if indeed October will bring on a second wave that will be fiercer than the first. Not knowing who will be left standing by the end of November no matter which candidate wins. Kindness and love.
A short drive of one hour (or a train ride of 50 minutes from Gare Saint-Lazare) takes one to the small village of Giverny whose main attraction is the Monet Gardens and Home. Two summers ago, I spent a week in the hills just above Giverny. I had the great good fortune to visit Monet’s gardens every morning before tourists arrived, and in the early evening after the tourists had left. As far as beauty went, it was a breathtaking week that has lingered in my mind.
I went with an art group even though I was hoping for writing inspiration. I was half-way through my book that was published in May. We stayed at La Réserve, a maison d’hôtes (bed and breakfast), that is hosted by Valerie and Francois Jouyet (www.giverny-lareserve.com). The group leaders stayed in a separate cottage, called a gîte, that has a spacious living room/dining room, well-equipped kitchen and, I was sure, some very nice bedrooms. I stored all this in the back of my mind and vowed that I would return someday and rent the cottage.
Not wanting to get on a plane, this summer, to go anywhere, I decided to make all my summer travels close to Paris, easy to get to, and a place of both beauty and rest. In June, I went to Brittany. In July, I went to Normandie. And last week, as a birthday treat to myself, I, and two friends, rented the cottage at La Réserve and stayed for a whole week.
I have written about Giverny and the gardens before and won’t repeat myself. This year, being the strange and extraordinary year it has been, going to Monet’s gardens in August didn’t seem like a silly idea. There would probably be no Americans, no Japanese and no Chinese. That group alone makes up for 75% of the visitors on any given day in July or August pre-pandemic. We didn’t know what to expect but this whole time since February 7 has been an adventure of not knowing, so we were game for anything.
After an hour’s drive from the suburbs of Paris, we arrived at La Réserve on a Wednesday. We were greeted by Valerie who was kind enough to say she remembered me. She walked us over to the cottage. I was delighted. It was better than I remembered. Large bedrooms with double beds, an en-suite bathroom in each bedroom; and a grill outside the back door. We had a private garden with a picnic table for evening dining. I remembered strong Wi-Fi but this time it wasn’t to be. No one ever figured out what was wrong but for most of the week, we were without internet. Once I accepted that, the week took on a even calmer atmosphere: disconnected from the world of Zoom but seeing people everyday in the form of my two friends, and whoever we met on our many walks traipsing up and down the hills surrounding Giverny.
As with most museums in Paris and France, during the time of Covid-19, one has to make a reservation to get into Monet’s gardens. I was told that they were letting in 350 people an hour which is about 4000 less people a day than earlier summers. We were to come on time and queue up at a door that I had no idea existed. As we showed our tickets, a young woman asked us to hold out our hands for the sanitising spray of disinfectant. The path from the door opened onto the steps going down to the small tunnel that leads to the water-lily pond. Large green arrows marked the way, and there was no doubt that one followed the arrows, no exceptions. So, like a long snake winding it’s body around the entire pond, we walked slowly, single and double file, with no distance between us and the people ahead. If we stopped to look at anything and talk about it, it was easy. No jumping up and down to see over someone’s head or ducking under an armpit to get closer to a view of the beautiful water-lilies that were open and happy to be seen. It seemed like a lot of people but it really wasn’t.
One round of the pond was all that was allowed, and then we were escorted across the road to the house gardens. The colors were just starting to turn an orange and a brown. The nasturtiums in the Allée des Roses had all been cut back and the allée was now a large pathway. It was blocked off as was much of those paths that meander around the house gardens. Again we followed the green arrows and ended up in another queue to enter the home. It’s been years since I had been in the house. Crowds make me very uncomfortable and every other time I’d been there, people packed the house like sardines. Not this time. This time, I got to appreciate how spacious the house is and how fortunate Monet was to have become so well-known long before his death. He had the means to create what so many of us are enjoying 120 years later. He loved and was inspired by Japanese art. Part of his upstairs art collection is a large selection of Japanese paintings and prints that hang on many of the walls. The upstairs consists of three bedrooms, two ‘bathrooms” (I’m not sure what they were called back then), two staircases, windows in every room opening onto the gardens and, also, many paintings done by his friends: Cezanne, Pissaro, Renoir, Sisley and others. The yellow and blue dining room and the blue-tiled kitchen are spectacular and one can only dream of dining there in such company.
Down the pedestrian walkway is the Musée d’Impressionisms. It used to be a museum for American painters that came to Giverny but sometime in the last ten years, it switched over to the museum it is today. Expositions, that are often fascinating, are installed once or twice a year. Two years ago, the expo was of the Japanese influence on many of the Impressionist painters. Paintings, Japanese and French, hung side by side to demonstrate what words on the walls were explaining to us. This time, it was Impressionists along the rivers and beach heads of Normandie. Two rooms were devoted to Hiramatsu Reiji, a Japanese painter who is clearly influenced by Monet. From his work, one can tell that he loves the gardens and Monet’s prolific work. He has produced some very beautiful pieces that included painting on canvas and on screens. I don’t believe he would be considered an Impressionist so it was a bit puzzling why he was there. I wasn’t complaining. His work is breathtaking.
One evening, we attended a chamber concert held in the museum. We were very lucky. We had been told that we could buy tickets at the entrance on the same evening. When we arrived, the women checking off names, laughed saying the concerts had been sold out months ago. With social distancing, an auditorium that was built to sit 270 people, was now sitting 78 or so. She said we could wait if we wanted to take our chances. I was positive we would get in. There are always some people who are no-shows. Indeed, we did get in, and heard two pianos play dance music from Westside Story (Leonard Bernstein), music for strings and piano playing Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin). There was also Samuel Barber and Prokofiev but if it had only been the first three pieces, I would have been extremely happy. It was a highlight of my week.
Every evening, we walked back to our cottage at La Réserve and grilled fish, meat, veggie burgers, corgettes, bell peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. We ate outside watching the light of August slowly eep away as the days were getting shorter. Our last evening, we witnessed a remarkable sunset. I had been reading about the many California fires and, to me, it seemed the sky was on fire. It was that dramatic. The reds, oranges, whites, yellows and purples danced and flew as if they were on stage. One minute it would get darker then, suddenly, it was lighter again. The clouds swirled. As they moved further away from the sun, the white clouds appeared as mountains with red caps or orange at their feet. We stood watching for a good fifteen minutes. It was our final art expo of the week, gratis via nature.