Edited by Sam Thielman
I REALIZED THE TRUTH when I told the story to my mother-in-law, but we're not going to spoil the twist up front.
Last week I came home from a trip to Italy. I went there because I was invited to speak on a panel at the International Journalism Festival in the lovely Umbrian city of Perugia. I stayed an extra day because some good friends were coincidentally in Rome. It seemed perverse not to take advantage of an opportunity to see one of the world's great cities. I climbed the Palatine Hill, wandered the ruins of Caesar's forum, gazed at the obelisks stolen from Egypt back when Egypt fed Rome, walked from the Palazzo del Popolo up to the Altar of the Fatherland, drank coffee in a shot standing up, saw Roma beat Salernitana from rich-people seats, crossed the Tiber at night. Never did I think I would see what I had only read about. The glories of 2,700 years restored me spiritually.
People told me that Italy, hit so hard at the beginning of the pandemic, had recently opened back up. In practice that meant they no longer had to wear masks outdoors. I wore masks everywhere inside, but outside, I was in Rome and so I did as the Romans do. Two days before I left, I tested negative for COVID in Perugia, and almost missed my flight home from Rome because I misunderstood the regulation and had to get another negative test before boarding.
I don't know for sure, but judging from the amateur test-and-tracing I did of people I spent time with in Italy, I figure I got COVID on the plane. Looks like I'm slightly ahead of the curve.
I'm vaccinated and boosted. This was by far the worst flu I can remember having. I use the past tense because it's been at least four days since I vibrated with body aches, sweated through my clothes and coughed productively, but I still tested positive this morning. Days ago, my fears manifested and my wife, children and mother-in-law contracted COVID. That was the hardest part of the whole thing. I'd rather not dwell on the relief I felt when the thermometer told me my unvaccinated one-year old's fever had broken.
I take my experience to be one of luck and, frankly, class. One of my oldest friends lost his uncle when the first wave of the pandemic swept through New York, and he was not allowed into the hospital to say goodbye. I'm the next-of-kin to an aunt who is a ward of New York State in Rockland County. After I was told she had COVID, it took weeks to learn whether she was alive. There aren't many public figures I hate more than Andrew Cuomo. But everyone has stories like this by now. Mine did not ever enter the same universe as those who truly suffered in the pandemic. Everyone in my home is recovering.
This post is not going to say anything about the politics of COVID-19. Twenty years in journalism has intimately acquainted me with the pressures to perform expertise about the thing-of-the-moment. Now that I don't answer to an editor [This is true.—Sam], and through that editor to an owner, I don't ever want to do that again. Read journalists with science backgrounds. Read epidemiologists. Don't do your own research because unless you have an actual science background you won't understand what's in front of your face. Don't trust writers who don't have those things but instead have Substacks.
My mother-in-law asked me about Italy either yesterday morning or the day before. (Time has never been a more abstract concept for me.) As I spooled through my memory, I found myself talking about all the people I saw who were and weren't masked, and where. And then that felt like a copout. I spooled through all the places I hadn't been masked. The Hotel Brufani bar at 1 a.m. with a friend I hadn't seen in at least six years, and new friends I had just made. The palazzos that were dense with people but I wanted to breathe the spring air in Rome and weren't we outside? The amount of time I might wait before readjusting my mask on the plane after taking a sip of water or a bite of food. The fact that I went to Italy at all.
And then I couldn't escape the lesson. It's year three of the pandemic and on some level I tacitly thought I just wouldn't get COVID. There are tremendous psychological, social, economic and political pressures to operate as if the pandemic is over. I didn't realize I had bought into them. That's how, and why, I got COVID.
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IT WOULD BE NICE to be the kind of person who doesn’t work when they’re sick, but that isn't me and it probably won't be me in the future. This is how I disassociate. I wrote an essay about Orhan Pamuk instead of sleeping off the coronavirus. So if I stop the newsletter now that the mainbar essay is done, I'll have to deal with things. Neither of us want that. So here's what I've read and watched and such since testing positive.
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, but we've covered that.
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM BY VICTOR LAVALLE. I'm the last person who should have read this book because I've read absolutely zero Lovecraft. I'm sure once I read The Horror at Red Hook—"Lovecraft's Most Bigoted Story, No Really…"—I'll appreciate this novella more deeply. But it's a garrotte-taut thriller taking revenge on Lovecraft. I wouldn't have known about Victor Lavalle if he wasn't writing Sabretooth, and I wouldn't have known about The Ballad of Black Tom had Connor not referenced it in his Cerebro interview with Victor. Now I have to read his other novels.
THE PHALANX COVENANT, A 1994 X-MEN CROSSOVER EVENT. If none of those words make sense to you, spare yourself and close the email or tab where FOREVER WARS appears. For a long time, I've had a hardcover edition of the Phalanx Covenant, a famous 1990s X-Men story that was published after I had stopped reading comics as a kid. I figured COVID isolation was a good time to finally read it. Wow, is this bad! Lots of inexplicable creative choices made in this one—why reach for Stephen Lang when Cameron Hodge, easily one of the most terrifying X-villains, is right there?—and that's after factoring for this being published right before the comics speculation bubble burst. Look, I've published a lot of bad journalism and many of the creators involved in Phalanx Covenant have published great comics. Sometimes your shot bricks. Larry Hama, Andy Kubert and Steve Skroce swoop in at the end and pull off a wonderful side quest in Wolverine #85 and Cable #16 that comes close to redeeming the story. Now that I've read those issues, I feel like they contain the textual origins of the Scott-Jean-Logan polycule. Don't ever worry about The Phalanx Covenant!
BIG LITTLE LIES, SEASON ONE. It was in-flight entertainment on my ill-fated flight from Rome to JFK and I got hooked. An ensemble show of all-stars even though they waste Zoe Kravitz. You've never wanted to see Alexander Skarsgard less! No one needs to read me think-piecing about a years-old soap opera and a friend warned me off watching season two. But this is a great show to watch when you're sick.
THE BROOKLYN NETS EATING SHIT IN GAME 1 OF THE FIRST ROUND AGAINST BOSTON. Did you know that according to Capitalism And Slavery by Eric Williams, Barclays accumulated its wealth through human bondage? And now, in the center of Brooklyn, there is a monument to this theft disguised as an arena? The South has its statues of Confederate tyrants. In the financial capital of the United States, we pay tribute to the vampires that made their tyranny possible. The Southern comrades took theirs down. What’s our excuse?
Anyway, Kyrie Irving played a legendary Game 1—while fasting for Ramadan—and it’s going to be the answer to a trivia question because in the final ten seconds, Boston made KD look helpless before Jalen Brown began a possession that ended with Jayson Tatum spinning behind Kyrie to deposit the game winner gently off the glass. I don’t give a fuck that Boston won, I don’t give a fuck that the Knicks won’t see a meaningful playoff run before mass extinction events occur, fuck the Nets, lol.
RUROUNI KENSHIN (2012). This is a samurai costume drama, apparently based on a manga – Sam tells me there was also a much-loved anime series – that Netflix told me was new to the platform. I fell asleep before it ended but that was a statement about fatigue rather than the merits of the movie. Basically a twink with Shatterstar hair is a legendary killer who tries to put himself on a better path. I'll be rewatching tonight.
HOUSE AND TRANCE SONGS SIMILAR TO ‘THE SKY WAS PINK REMIX’ (SPOTIFY PLAYLIST BY USER LISTENING2GOODMUSIC). I was listening to 'The Sky Was Pink - Holden Remix' and you'll never guess what I typed in Spotify's search function. It was exactly what I was looking for.