It’s COVID-19 USA 11-April-2020.

I wake up a half dozen times between probably 3 and 8, but I keep going back to sleep. I dream that I have dropped off my shoes to be shined. The shoeshine man is kind and grateful for work. Then I get lost in some weird Dickensian labyrinth and have no shoes. The shoeshine man has them.

Also, I’m sort of half naked, but no one cares.

As I sit down on my meditation cushion—clothed, incidentally—I lament that I can no longer sit with my windows open and hear the Peruvian birds go crazy; it’s too cold here. Then I see an enormously fat robin in the bright sun.

Then, when Steve and I go for a neighborhood walk, we see this majestic fellow just hanging out on the front lawn.

The birds are here, after all. They’re country birds, not city birds, but they’re beautiful all the same.

Some Not So Light Reading

The duck is the only sentient being we encounter on our walk. There is the roar from a cherry picker; someone is high up, apparently doing tree surgery or amputation or something. I guess it’s essential work.

My essential work today is cooking and picking up a few more groceries. I decide to do Greek Easter for tomorrow’s main meal; I’ve done it every Easter for years on and off, and it’s a good time to return to tradition.

Before I start making my list, though, I blow off online reading in favor of the pleasure of reading print. The cover story for the April 2020 issue of Harper’s, “Arm the Left!” by James Pogue, is what I choose.

I hate guns. But years ago, when I told the X that I supported gun control, he said something to the effect of, ok, but how do we defend ourselves against all the crazy right-wingers?

He had, continues to have, a point. An army vet, the X proved to be a spectacular shot, something I found out when we visited Cabella’s with my brother Jon, a hunter himself, and they squared off on the in-store shooting range.

In the article, Pogue admits to his own ambivalence, but also gets to the root of why people in the US even need guns in the first place. “The tragedy of American gun culture is that it is inseparable from the tragedy of American life today,” he writes toward the end of the essay. “The suicides, the mass shootings, the vast numbers of people sent to prison for gun crimes: these are all expressions of the fact that the US is a place where millions feel alone and see no future for themselves, where a seemingly unaccountable elite is willing to wreck the entire planet rather than sacrifice the profits of a small number of corporations.”

This issue of Harper’s came out before the world changed. The arguments stand out in even sharper relief against the COVID backdrop. I hate guns no less after finishing it, but, well, in light of the way the world’s changed overnight, it was a very good to read.

OK, enough of that. It’s time to go to our local grocery store, in the heart of deep red, gun-loving southeast Michigan.

Make That Flour-Loving

Our local grocery store—Country Market, a smallish chain—has a sign in front: Only one household member per visit. I did not see anything comparable at Meijer in Ann Arbor, where frankly they need those kind of rules a lot more, given the higher population density. My little town is voluntarily implementing restrictions. I appreciate it.

The store’s thus quite peaceful inside, and not insanely crowded—unlike my last shopping trip on Lady Day. (Can that really have been just a week ago?) It’s well-stocked, though I can’t, of course, get the fancier stuff, like kefalotiri cheese, a hard Greek cheese that I wanted for making pastitsio. So I sub Asiago. If this trip, this entire life with COVID has taught me anything, it is to make do. Making do is fine.

The canned aisle is a shocker, however. The shelves of Chef Boyardee type stuff are plumb empty. Plenty of Mexican ingredients on the other side, and honestly, if you’re going to hoard, I pick tacos over Spaghettios any day of the week to hunker in my bunker. (That rhyme was completely unintentional, but I do believe I may be onto something. I challenge you all to write a post-apocalypse anthem with that title. You can use “Bungle in the Jungle” by Jethro Tull should you need a tune.)

Also empty: the shelves holding flour. I had heard about this baking phenomenon, how no one can find yeast or flour anywhere because everyone’s going crazy making their own bread. I just wanted a little cake flour, but there is nothing.

Honestly, we don’t even like cake that much. Making do is fine.

Epic Kitchen Fail

I come home and make a brine for chicken, which I always for at least a couple of hours before I cook it; otherwise, I really don’t like the way it tastes.

I mix up the meat for the pastitsio, make the pasta, the bechamel. I set out spinach and phyllo dough to thaw; I’ll fold up spanikopita tonight or tomorrow.

The chicken is an UTTER disaster. I don’t have Massive Kitchen Fails often. But oh dear. This is bona fide. I brine the chicken, marinade it, sear it in a cast iron pan, put said pan in the oven….should be awesome. It’s horrible, weird and tough and chewy; not even overdone and stringy, but with the weirdest texture I’ve ever had the misfortune to sample; it’s like chicken-flavored styrofoam.

We blame the chicken rather than the cook, so I save a little face. Note to self: must buy all future chicken from fancy market. It won’t be Whole Foods, but it won’t be Country Market, either.

I put the mystery meat on the lawn, hoping a neighborhood cat or raccoon will be grateful.

I tell Steve that years ago, when Karl first got sick, his sister decided that he was going to try macrobiotic. We bought what were called “Tofu Pups,” an early attempt at a tofu hot dog. They tasted about as awesome as that sounds.

After the meal, Karl’s mother would gather up all the scraps, including the barely touched Tofu Pups to feed to the raccoons who came to her back yard in Newtown, CT. (Karl and I both thought this was massively weird, raccoons being frankly terrifying. But her yard, her rules.)

The next morning all of the scraps had disappeared—save for the Tofu Pups, which had been neatly left in the middle. Have you ever got one of those little squishy tablets that you stick a pill in to try to trick your cat? Then a while later, you hear this tiny little “click,” and you look down and the cat has perfectly eaten all of the squishy stuff away and dropped the pill at your feet? It was exactly like that.

Hopefully, Mortification Chicken will not meet the same fate. Maybe that duck we saw early is a cannibal….

Evening Entertainment

I tell Steve that I am not posting on this Saturday night. He’s says that he’s glad, because I am more relaxed now that I don’t have to get a post out. I think I’m more relaxed because we’re home and I’ve slept, but, well, noted either way.

We decide to watch Diva, a movie I particularly love and that Steve has never seen. It’s a story of a young opera-loving postman who secretly records a singer who refuses to be recorded; naturally, all manner of terrible people want to get their hands on the tape. The shot below occurs during a sequence scored by Vladmir Cosma’s beautiful Satie-esque “Promenade Sentimentale.” Below the photo, you can hear the music as a bunch of badly scanned photos appear. So close your eyes for that part, because the music is lovely.

covid-19 usa 11/12 april 2020

The director Jean-Jacques Beineix never quite hit as hard or successfully with his subsequent movies, but Diva spawned one star, Dominque Pinon, who plays a bald, combat-booted, earbud-equipped thug with sinister, comedic grace.

Pinon would go on to what I think is a worthy successor to Diva, Delicatessen, from the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Mark Caro. They would later bring the crowd-pleasing Amélie to the world. Delicatessen is much, much darker, a comic dystopia that seems about as perfect for our current moment as anything else. And, rare for a dystopia, it’s wonderfully sweet.

So there. Two movie recommendations for the price of one. And they’re French.

covid-19 usa 11/12 april 2020

Happy Easter

I’m up between 3 and 5. When I get these bouts of not being able to go back to sleep, I never fight them. I just go downstairs and read.

I end up sleeping until 9:30, so it’s nearly time for online church at the Ann Arbor Buddhist Temple. After meditation and chanting, Haju wishes us all Happy Easter.

Afterward, I put Steve to work chopping herbs—parsley, dill, and rosemary—for Spanakopita. He likes to chop, carefully and precisely. He’s an outstanding sous chef.

Since we’ve returned, meanwhile, my eating has been weird and haphazard; it tends that way anyway, but in the re-adjustment, I’m eating even more like an unsupervised toddler (one who gets into the booze cabinet) than usual. I decide to put together a rough template to ensure a healthier diet. I read somewhere that many of us were likely to emerge from quarantine superb cooks and raging alcoholics. And possibly this, from my friend Deborah, who fears it may in her case literally become true:

covid-19 usa 11/12 april 2020

Meanwhile, back in Perú

We find out that a scheduled charter was cancelled, then reinstated. While we were there, this was my nightmare. We’d get scheduled for a flight, make all the arrangements to get out—then have someone say, sorry. Whoops. And there we are with nowhere to stay, having to arrange transportation God knows how.

The Embassy includes in their note that regularly scheduled flights—really? there are regularly scheduled flights?—will stop on April 21st. I can remember getting word similar to this, that they were stopping on April 5th. We didn’t get out til April 8th.

It’s no longer our problem, but neither Steve nor I can stop checking the updates. Less nervously, but we still check.

Later I find on Facebook that people actually went to the Embassy and formed two lines, one for confirmed flyers and one for those on standby. Everyone made it on, but…yeesh. Also, the flights apparently now cost at least double what ours went for, $800 each. A bargain.

It’s easy to imagine how I’d be feeling if we were there. I feel grateful that we got out in the same way I’ve felt grateful the few times I’ve avoided a bad accident. In other words, not this blissful gratitude, but the sort of sick-to-my-stomach kind. Do you know what I mean?

Easter Dinner

It turns out well. Phew. After a kitchen fail, I wonder if I still know how to cook. Apparently, I do. Not a great picture, but gives you an idea.

Steve, gallant to the end, continues to insist that the fail was the chicken’s fault.

The Marcus Aurelius Moment* of the Weekend

From Susan Ferry, who was my first cooking boss when I worked in the Cafe at Louie’s Backyard in Key West: That cooking can be tedious or meditative. You make the choice. To always taste your food. And that, when a great cook answers your question “how much should I use?” by saying “a good amount,” she’s really telling you to experience the food yourself, and to trust yourself as you determine what “a good amount” means for you.

*In the first part of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman ruler details what various people in his life have taught him. To read the full intro to why I care about Marcus Aurelius, click here.