Quote of The Week

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”

Albert Camus


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Grand Hotel

We spend the occasional week at the Grand Hotel in Folkestone, England. In case this might give you an exaggerated idea of the financial rewards of public radio, I should explain that this particular Grand Hotel has come down in the world. A hundred years ago it was very grand indeed, but now it has fallen on hard times and is, as they say, “affordable.” Retired colonels, writers, artists, radio commentators, and other riff-raff come to the Grand Hotel to enjoy a touch of class without getting a classy bill at the end of it.

The Grand is one of a whole string of splendid Victorian hotels that were built along the south coast of England before British holidaymakers discovered Spain. It is a truly impressive building with four hundred rooms, including a Palm Court and a superb ballroom. It was originally designed as residential chambers – small but luxurious apartments for gentlemen who wanted to escape from the hubbub of London life, and perhaps to escape from some of the restrictions of domestic life too. It attracted some distinguished residents. One of these was Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who came here not only with the Queen but also with his intimate friend Alice Keppel. In honor of their famous liaison, the restaurant at the hotel is now called Keppel’s. The Prince frequented the Palm Court with many of his male friends. Because so many of them were bearded in the fashion of the day, the Palm Court acquired the disrespectful nickname of The Monkey House. The term “Monkey Business” entered the language because so many of these young aristocrats were staying in the Grand Hotel for reasons of which Queen Victoria, could not possibly have approved.

In other words, the Grand Hotel had a racy reputation at the turn of the last century. Between the wars, Edward VIII stayed there, and Mrs Simpson stayed close by. Robert Morley and Michael Caine made their stage debuts at Grand Hotel, and Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express in this very building.

But it all went downhill after World War Two. The building had been damaged by shelling, wealthy and idle young gentlemen were an endangered species, and more and more people took their vacations abroad, away from the rain and wind of the English coast. Ballrooms and Palm Courts were out of fashion. The Grand Hotel became a liability. There was talk of knocking it down and making a nice car park, or perhaps a supermarket.

Fortunately it was saved, and is enjoying a revival. People like us rent apartments by the week or month, so we can pretend to live like nineteenth-century aristocrats, but at motel prices. Our apartment is slightly faded and badly in need of a coat of paint. The furniture is not exactly of the period but of every period from 1910 to 1954, with some very strange lamps and ghastly souvenir teapots, as if the whole place has been furnished in a hurry from one gigantic garage sale.

But it is spacious and comfortable, with fine sea views, and we have the run of the hotel with its grand stairways and classy public rooms. Just being there makes me feel like a veritable little prince. The original guests at the Grand Hotel would no doubt have been horrified by this decline from rakishness to faded respectability. To them, it would illustrate the worst excesses of democracy. But democracy has a way of catching up with history. Tens of thousands of tourists tramp over the Parthenon and through the Palace of Versailles every year. Some of the finest palaces in Asia are now converted into hotels. Even in America, you can find overnight accommodation in some very fine old houses, whose owners would not even have spoken to you a hundred years ago.

Today’s monumental status symbol is tomorrow’s bed and breakfast. I call it the trickle-down theory of architecture, and it’s very reassuring. Right now, we can’t afford a gigantic house, like the four thousand square foot “New Victorian” monsters that are being built all around us on Long Island. But all we have to do is wait.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Visit to the Middle Ages

A few months after we discovered English villagers re-enacting the American Civil War behind an English pub (see “The South Will Rise Again” below) we walked into another historical anachronism. These things must be more common than I had thought, and perhaps they tell us something. Is it nostalgia for the past or disgust with the present that motivates twenty-first century people to dress up like actors and revive a chunk of history?

Or is it simply that history, at least in books, seems so full of life and color? It was a hot Sunday in the pretty southern French town of Uzès. As we walked through the streets, looking for a place for lunch, I spotted a group of people dressed in medieval costumes, and carrying ancient musical instruments. This
was irresistible. We followed them down the street, through a stone archway, and into a square that was like a stage set for a King Arthur movie. Not only were most of the buildings at least five hundred years old, but also the square was packed with people in medieval costume.

We stopped at an outdoor café thinking that, if this was some curious illusion, a bottle of the local wine might help it along. Our waiter, a cheerful young squirewearing a royal tabard, told us that this was indeed the once a year medieval festival of Uzès. We had just missed the festival of garlic the week before, but he assured us that this was better.

It was. For this one day the whole town had traveled back in time to the fourteenth century, when it was the first Royal Dukedom of France. The modern inhabitants of Uzès had transformed themselves, with beautifully realistic costumes, into lords and ladies, priests and monks, nuns and jugglers, knights and squires, strolling musicians, and all the other characters familiar to the readers of medieval romances. The dark side was not forgotten: there were some nasty looking beggars, a truly hideous leper, a sinister wizard right our of Harry Potter, and plenty of poor artisans plying their various trades. Horses were tethered along the edge of the square, adding authentic sounds and smells.

We felt quite conspicuous in our twenty-first (or in my case mid-twentieth) century attire, and considered dressing up ourselves. Costumes were being handed out from a stall on the edge of the square. I wanted to be a clown, but my wife said that I was really more cut out to be a jester. In the end we kept our own
identities, as bemused tourists.

The medieval band played their authentic instruments—heavy on the drums—and the dancers danced in spite of the temperature, which was around ninety degrees. The entertainers were correctly dressed in rags. Five hundred years ago entertainers were regarded as the lowest form of life. Today, for some inexplicable reason, they are treated like minor gods, or fallen angels.

Children and even babies wore sixteenth century costumes, and were encouraged to play ancient games with hoops and spinning tops. The historical illusion was not complete, of course. There were plenty of funny anachronisms. Nikes could be seen peeking out from under some robes, the waiter at the adjoining restaurant, although dressed as a pious monk, was no better an example of Christian charity and forgiveness than any regular French waiter, and I saw a fire eater put down his flaming torches in order to answer his cell phone. Cigarettes and designer handbags were in evidence, half a millennium ahead of their time. But in general it was a fascinating show, street theater in its most comprehensive form. Everyone was a performer, and everyone was a spectator.

The last time I wrote about historical re-enactments I posed the rhetorical question: “Why are these events always about wars, like the Civil War, and never about peace?” Well, here was my answer: the citizens of Uzès were re-enacting peace in the form of a market day—an innocent day of trade and sociability and entertainment—no blood, no death, no heroism, just fun. What could be more civilized than that?

Copyright: David Bouchier

Feathered Friends

One of my favorite childhood treats was to go to the local park and feed the ducks. My mother told me that brown ducks were brown because they ate only brown bread, and white ducks were white because they ate only white bread, so we took some of each. I believed this long after I had learned the awful truth about Santa Claus.

But, in spite of this parental misdirection, my duck feeding gene had been activated. It’s an innocent and traditional pleasure, very popular at our local pond. Even now, in the heart of the virus hysteria, a lot of people bring their kids on the weekends, and it’s good to see the young ones learning to appreciate their feathered friends at a proper social distance.

For many years, before I achieved psychological maturity, I fed ducks only when I felt like it. My first encounter with a committed duck feeder came at the University of Connecticut more than twenty years ago, when my campus office had a view over an ornamental lake with many wild fowl, and others who just pretended to be wild. Every morning, whatever the weather, an elderly man would drive up in a truck, loaded with several large bins full of duck food. He was mobbed by winged admirers as soon as he stopped, some of them climbing on to the truck and plunging right into the bins. The feeding frenzy was over in a matter of minutes, leaving the lake covered in fat and contented birds.

At the time I thought this was rather strange, and even sad. I’ve seen the same phenomenon at other ponds. Who, I wondered, are these old men who have nothing better to do than feed the ducks every day? Now I know.

Duck feeding catches up with you late in life, like certain sneaky viruses. What got me started was the careless frivolity of some of our local amateur duck feeders. On a sunny day, and especially on weekends, families are so thick on the ground around the pond that you practically have to line up and take a ticket. When it’s wet or snowy or freezing or blowing a gale, just when the ducks most need to be fed, these fair weather feeders are nowhere to be seen.

Even when they are there most feeders don’t do it right. They offer bread for one thing, which is bad for the birds, white or brown. It upsets their digestions and pollutes their water. Cracked corn is much better. And fathers especially tend to throw bread like pitchers in a baseball game. How would you like it? Ducks don’t want food thrown at them, let alone doled out in tiny scraps. They want it all at once, and right now.

So I set up a schedule for myself to feed the ducks proper food in a respectful fashion every day, rain or shine. They appreciate it. They have learned to recognize me, or at least my car number plate. My wife came down to the pond with me the other day. “I see you can still pull the birds,” she said ironically, as about fifty ducks came flying straight at us.

The authorities on wildfowl say that we shouldn’t feed wild ducks at all. It may disrupt their migratory patterns, and undermine nature’s law of the survival of the fittest. The ducks themselves, who are about as wild as our cats, have a different opinion. They have no intention of migrating anywhere, unless someone buys them a cheap flight to Florida on Southwest, but they do have a hard time surviving when the water freezes.

As for the survival of the fittest, we never apply this principle to ourselves. These wildfowl experts, if they eat three substantial meals a day summer and winter, are in no position to recommend it. Let them spend a week or two on a freezing pond with no food, to show how fit they are. If they are very lucky, I may come by with my bag of cracked corn.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The South Will Rise Again

A couple of years ago we were driving through southern England on our way to yet another airport, when we left the main highway and plunged into the country lanes in search of a place to have lunch. Actually not much searching was involved, because we already knew where to find the best lunch in the area. We stopped as usual in the village of Ockham, at a pub called the Black Swan, which rather perversely has a white swan on its sign, and is known locally The Dirty Duck.

As we stepped out of the car we were greeting by the unmistakable sound of gunfire, which is not usual in English villages, even in these exciting times. Two groups of men were lined up on opposite sides of the field behind the pub, loosing off volleys of rifle fire at each other. At first we thought it was one of those village disputes about fox hunting, or who grew the biggest marrow for the agricultural show, that had just got out of hand. But, when we moved out of the line of fire and took a closer look, it was clear that the combatants were wearing old-fashioned uniforms, and the flat popping sound of their muskets suggested that they were firing blanks.

It was my wife who, having the benefit of a good American education, recognized the uniforms. We were looking at a re-enactment of a battle from the Civil War. We heard rather feeble rebel yells and shouted orders as the two sides marched and counter-marched across the field. The uniforms and equipment looked quite genuine, and perhaps the action was too. For example, many of the Confederates were in the pub drinking beer during the battle which, if it’s an authentic re-enactment of those events, may explain the débacle at Appomattox in 1865.

What confounded me completely was the fact that a bunch of Englishmen (and some women) chose to re-enact the American civil war in an English field behind an English pub. England had a perfectly good Civil War of its own in the 1640s – lots of slaughter, many atrocities, nice costumes, great fun. Other important battles were fought close to this very place, including one against the invading French in 1066, which the English lost for once. Why not re-enact that one, and perhaps change the ending?

Nursing my pint among the boisterous Confederate troops, I reflected that geographical anachronism was only half the puzzle. I can see the attraction of re-creating a slice of history. It’s theatrical, it’s educational, and it must be fun. But why choose the most dismal, nasty and brutal moments of the past? Why not re-enact peace?

I know, peace is dull, and war is exciting and even romantic – but only if you choose your war, and your battle I don’t see anyone re-enacting the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War, for example, or the collapse of the Maginot Line. How about a re-enactment of some of the great moments in intellectual history – the Lincoln/Douglass debates, for example, or the debate over the Bill of Rights. That would really be educational.

I wish history enthusiasts would choose to re-enact our moments of collective sanity, instead of our (alas) much more frequent moments of madness. But I’m not holding my breath.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Fear Itself

Franklin D. Roosevelt was being wildly optimistic when he said: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He should see us now. The last months have produced a regular apocalypse of fear-making events – extreme weather, catastrophic fires, and now the open-ended threat of the Coronavirus. It’s like something out of the Book of Revelations. I can scarcely wait for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to come to my door, so I can agree with them for a change. But they’re not allowed to come to my door any more. It must be very frustrating for them.

The religious crazies have come out of the woodwork for yet another Great Awakening, warning that we are “Living in the last days,” just as they did in the 1730s, the 1820s, and the 1880s. Even more sinister are the “fear entrepeneurs” who are feeding on these events to sell products or political programs. We went through this circus before the Year 2000. Surely we can recognize it for what it is this time around?

Obviously we can’t, because we don’t want to. All of us animals have the same basic needs: food, procreation, territory: that’s what survival is all about. If our species has any claim to distinction, it is our uniquely human need to worry. Scientific researchers have spent a lot of time studying how and why we worry, and they have come up with two useful facts.

The first is that worrying is inversely correlated with risk or, in plain English, that the more we worry about something the less reason there is to worry about it. Some people can spend hours fretting about Radon in the basement or mercury fillings in their teeth, yet step into a car without a moment’s trepidation. But driving a car is just about the most dangerous thing you can do, short of hang gliding, or ordering Seafood Surprise in a cheap restaurant.

This is just ordinary human perversity. We can squeeze more worrying time out of a million-to-one risk than an almost-guaranteed disaster, just as lottery tickets are more fun than tax free bonds.

The second useful piece of research confirms something I have suspected for years: that every person has a fixed capacity for worry – let’s call it the “A.Q.” or Anxiety Quotient. Our Anxiety Quotient stays pretty much the same throughout life. It’s one of those basic personality traits that we can’t change. So each individual will always worry at about the same level, regardless of whether everything in their life is perfect, or there’s a nuclear war going on. When one worry is disposed of, the next immediately drops into place, like those multiple CD players, to keep the worry level constant.

The Anxiety Quotient is probably recorded in our genes. When the complete human genetic code is finally deciphered, there will be a “worry gene” in there somewhere. In some people, it will be below the level of microscopic visibility. In others, I will be the size of a dinosaur’s egg.

Some people have real, serious things to worry about: poverty, bad health, the police and so on. They don’t need any help with their Anxiety Quotient. Others can create anxieties out of thin air. Let them win a twenty five million dollar lottery prize, be lying on a beach in the Bahamas with the perfect companion, entirely surrounded by epidemiologists and security guards, and they’ll sit up and say: “I wonder if I turned the iron off back home…” or “Suppose my hairdresser is closed when we get back.” These are Olympic class professional worriers. They don’t need any help either.

The people who do need help are those in the middle. They have comfortable lives with no stress, but their Anxiety Quotient is high. They have to resort to really improbable fears, like the electromagnetic fields from overhead power lines, or the arrival of killer comets from outer space. Worrying about things like this makes a person look stupid. It’s obvious to everyone that they have nothing to worry about, and are grasping at straws.

It is these people who really need and enjoy the kind of daily news we’ve had lately. Suddenly they have a million new things to worry about. I just wish they would do it more quietly.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Forever Uncool

Another significant birthday came and went this winter, pushing me into an age group which I used to imagine was inhabited only by doddering, drooling old wrecks with hearing aids and grumpy attitudes. I have the hearing aid, but I haven’t started doddering or drooling yet, or at least nobody has mentioned it. As for a grumpy attitude, judge for yourself.

It’s providential that the frontier of old age moves along as we get older ourselves. When you’re a teenager, thirty seems unimaginably ancient. When you reach thirty, you understand that old age doesn’t begin until fifty. Now, it seems to me, eighty-five is the real frontier of decrepitude. My mother, at ninety-five, worried aloud about what she would do when she got old.

However, at the same time, every birthday seems to mark the end of something – either an activity or a fantasy. Over the years I’ve given up motorcycling, smoking, vodka, loose women, skiing, moving furniture, shoveling snow, and cooking with hot peppers. I’ve also given up a lot of fantasies: being a bestselling novelist, an actor, an internationally famous intellectual, and the owner of forty-eight cats. My wife put a stop to that last ambition.

All these dreams have been set aside one by one, and not many are left. The one I gave up this last birthday was the hope that somebody, some time, somewhere, would find me cool.

In my long and unsuccessful struggle to master the American language, the word “cool” was a minor stumbling block. I had thought it to refer to a subjective measure of temperature or emotion, as in: “You’d better not take the radiator cap off until the engine cools down,” or “You’d better not go back home until your wife cools down.”

The more I think about it the more complicated it becomes. Cool is apparently related to hip, but my mother has hip problems so I don’t want to get into that, it’s too personal. But cool has also become an attribute of things and places – not as you might imagine refrigerators and Antarctica, but un-relaxed, fast things like cars or computers, and hyperactive places like Estonia or the Seychelles

But the Oxford English Dictionary, at the bottom of a page of definitions, gives: “Cool – slang: to calm down, relax, go more slowly.” This explains the common usage that had so puzzled me at first. When young people refer to one of their contemporaries as cool, it is not a diagnosis of hypothermia but a value judgment. Individuals so labeled do seem calm almost to the point of coma, relaxed, especially in their dress, which hangs from their bodies and around their ankles in great cool folds , and very slow moving, both physically and mentally.

So “Cool” appears to be an insult, but it’s not. It is the most desirable thing, a universal fantasy. “Cool” simply replaced words like “sophisticated” or “insouciant,” because nobody could spell them any more. But the pose is as old as history – a kind of lazy, fashionable, insolent facade designed to annoy one’s parents and attract girls. I always wanted to be cool, even before I knew what it was. As a teenager I tried living in Paris and wearing nothing but black. Unfortunately I spoke bad French, and had dandruff. Then I tried powerful motorcycles – very cool – and all kinds of other poses and accessories, with no result. I never achieved cool. I was always too busy, and I never quite mastered the emotional indifference that is so central to being cool. I had enthusiasms, I expressed my feelings occasionally: not cool. The aged Mick Jagger may be cool, but I am eternally stuck in the un-cool zone, at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now, with that birthday behind me, I officially declare that my ambition to be cool is over. It’s too late even to fake it and, frankly, I don’t care. I’m cool.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Suburban Legends

My mother told me a lot of stories when I was young. Not all of them stood up to closer examination. For example she told me that cows sat down in the fields because rain was on the way, that the moon was made of green cheese, and that the bogeyman would come for me if I was a bad boy. These all proved to be incorrect. I’m still checking out her improbable tale about Father Christmas.

We human beings are credulous creatures at any age. We love to believe in marvels and miracles, and sometimes I think we will believe anything. In fact, the less likely it is, the more we want to believe it. I’m thinking of politics, of course, and the stock market, and media like the National Enquirer and certain TV news programs. The psychological mechanism that allows us to swallow the most implausible rubbish is very simple, and has been understood since ancient times. Julius Caesar expressed it succinctly, although in Latin, two thousand years ago: “Men will gladly believe what they want to believe.” And I’m sure that women have the same talent.

The remarkable ability of our species to believe the improbable and the impossible helps to guarantee the survival of our major institutions and, on a less exalted level, allows all kinds of amusing and usually harmless myths to flourish. Some of these have acquired the label “urban legends” and we’ve all heard them – alligators living in the sewers of New York, innocent travelers who are drugged and wake up minus a kidney, contaminated phones, mysterious vanishing hitchhikers: these are the fairy tales of our age.

In the French village where we once lived, the locals firmly believed that you had to place two plastic bottles of water on your doorstep, to keep cats away – a village legend unique to this place, as far as I could discover.

Out here in the subdivisions, we have our own suburban legends. Back in 1956 the novel Peyton Place, plus two movies and a TV series, created an erotic myth about our steamy suburban lives that has still not gone away, even though nothing could be further from the truth (unless I’m missing something). We believe that bad things will happen to people who don’t cut their lawns, but nothing happens to those few brave rebels. We even believe that sales are sales, that discounts are discounts, and that the plumber will call right back.

The frontiers of credulity are constant being expanded. There are tens of thousands of Internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories: Osama bin Laden is teaching sociology at Harvard, there are mutant chickens in your fast food, aliens have brought Elvis back to life and he’s living in Omaha, and so on, and so on.

Is there really no limit to our capacity for self-delusion? Some people even believe that our brilliant leaders will save us from global warming, terrorism, and the coming energy crisis. Faith can move mountains, says the proverb. But it seems that not even a mountain of facts can move a stubborn faith.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Beethoven and Me

I woke up one fine morning to discover that, quite suddenly, the volume in my right ear had been turned down by fifty percent. At first I attributed this partial deafness to the cheap local wine (we were living in France at the time), but when a few bottles of the expensive stuff failed to bring it back I decided to see a doctor.

Doctor Bec’s offices were in an ancient apartment building in Montpellier, but his technical equipment was modern enough. He confirmed my own impression. “You’re going deaf in that ear,” he said. When I asked why he said, in the brisk way that French doctors have: “You’re not so young any more.” That was the diagnosis. No cure was suggested.

(I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “deaf.” I should say “hearing impaired.” But that’s just silly. Words mean what they mean. My mother isn’t “hearing impaired.” She is, as she says herself, as deaf as a post. It must run in the family.)

For years I put off doing anything about it. But I wish people wouldn’t mumble at me. They never mumbled before and, in recent months, it seems as if nobody in the world can speak clearly. I can’t deny Doctor Bec’s diagnosis any longer – I must be getting older. I never believed that I could stay young forever, except briefly in 1977 when I was living in southern California and was almost convinced by the local health religion. Then I tried yogurt and vitamin pills and jogging, and decided that even eternal life itself wouldn’t be worth this kind of torture.

After taking several audiology tests, all of which showed a curve like a bad week on the Dow Jones Industrial Index, I took myself along to the office of Doctor Martinetti, on the principle that an Italian doctor might be more sympathetic than a French one. He was.

Hearing aids have come a long way since the days of the ear trumpet. There’s lots of choice. Economically speaking the principle is the exact opposite of buying an SUV. With hearing aids, the smaller and more efficient they are the more they cost. The smallest are the size of deer ticks and cost a fortune. If I didn’t care at all about size I could rig up some sort of personal amplifier with surplus radio equipment, but it would require a backpack to carry around.

I chose something in the intermediate size range. It’s about as big as a dime, and ounce for ounce about the same price as gold. My research had told me that the most sophisticated top-of-the-line hearing aids these days come from Denmark, the land of the Vikings. I don’t know why this should be, unless those big helmets with horns on top are bad for the ears.

I must confess that I was feeling a bit sorry for myself at this point. I’m much too young to need a hearing aid. But then I remembered the most famous deaf person in history, Ludwig Van Beethoven, who ironically was also one of the greatest composers who ever lived. He began to go deaf when he was only twenty-six, and was totally deaf by middle age. In May 1824, at the première performance of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven himself conducted. Since he couldn’t hear a thing the orchestra kept it’s own tempo, and the maestro was still conducting after the symphony had ended and the applause had begun. One of the singers had to gently turn him around to face his audience, and receive his ovation.

That’s a real human tragedy. My little hearing aid is just a bad joke.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Taxing Times

If you have already finished and mailed your federal tax return, you are probably feeling rather smug right now (especially as the date has been put back to June 15). If not, you are probably feeling paranoid. My own emotions are mixed. I’m happy that our taxes are done but, as happens every year, I’m full of resentment about the process of doing them. I might feel better if we qualified for a refund.

I resent the peremptory, authoritarian nature of the tax demand. A democratic government shouldn’t address its citizens in the tones of a medieval king addressing a bunch of peasants, but it does – never a “please” beforehand and never a “thank you” afterwards. A little politeness would go some way towards making me feel better about paying my taxes – but not much better.
What would make me feel much would be a bit of budgetary control. I want to decide what my tax money will be used for – to choose some expenditures and veto others. It’s the very least we can expect in a country where consumer choice is almost sacred. If you think that the federal government knows best how to budget your money you haven’t been paying attention to the daily news, or indeed to anything.

I resent the impossibly complicated nature of the tax system. Even our accountant was confused by some details this year. It shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. The basic principle is pretty simple: we have money, they want it, they take it. So I suspect that the complexity is a mere smokescreen behind which the very rich and big corporations can contrive to reduce their taxes almost to nothing. Sixty per cent of large corporations pay no federal tax whatsoever, in spite of making huge profits. I don’t know how they do it, but I wish I did! We won’t even mention the tax breaks that give back tens of billions to those who need it least.

To say “It’s not fair,” is irrelevant, of course. Taxation was never designed or intended to be fair. It’s a traditional device for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. But, on a personal psychological level, taxes really hurt. The painful financial self-examination forced on us each April is like surgery without the anesthetic.

The tax authorities equate freelance writers with small businesses, although my job seems to lack the distinguishing feature of a business, namely profit. We are lumped together with independent contractors, retailers, roofers, consultants, mobile veterinarians, lawn services, and so on. It’s doubly unfair because so many small business people are paid in cash. Nobody ever offers me a bundle of twenties for my services, although I wouldn’t refuse it.

All my accounts are recorded on paper. There’s no income I can accidentally forget. I was brought up to be honest about money – a fatal weakness at this time of year. Honesty is not only not the best policy, it is the dumbest policy you can imagine. In the process of going through the accounts I relive my life and work literally day by day, and every small extravagance comes back to haunt me. Did I really need that new computer? Could I really have spent almost $1,000 on office supplies in 2019, and $561.33 on postage? What did I think I was doing?
The final calculation is the worst part – the depressing arithmetic of profit and loss. Form 1040 says it all: I would have been slightly better off, and the government would have been slightly worse off, if I had stayed in bed all last year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Plague

In The Plague, a 1947 novel by Albert Camus, the citizens of Oran in Algeria are decimated by a dreadful infectious disease, which (having no choice) they bear with heroic stoicism and endurance. Clever literary critics say that the plague described in the novel is a subtle metaphor of the German occupation, or of evil in general. But I read it as a much more transparent metaphor of the common cold.

The common cold knows no boundaries, respects no persons, and loves this winter season when our immunity is at a low ebb. It has been a plague of the human race forever, and it’s strange to think that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare all knew these symptoms intimately. Beethoven caught a cold when he was going to visit his mother on a freezing winter night, and died.

Some sufferers try to dignify their common colds with more impressive names: it’s a virus, they say, it’s flu, it’s an upper respiratory infection. But no, it’s just a cold, totally unimpressive and unimportant, except to the one who has it. We get no sympathy, and really deserve none. Friends try elaborately to keep their distance, without making it too obvious. We the victims have to sneak around avoiding company, handshakes, kisses and all friendly human contact.

I’ve always believed that people with colds, myself included, should just stay home, and stop spreading the germs around. I hate those valiant souls who crawl into the office, or the classroom, coughing and sneezing like explosive Typhoid Marys, just to show how dedicated they are. There’s an argument to be made for voluntary or even compulsory quarantine for cold sufferers. It’s estimated that workdays lost through colds cost $17 billion a year. Keep people from infecting their fellow workers or students, and that figure might drop all the way to zero.

A cold takes about ten days to run its course. There’s no treatment. Antibiotics are worse than useless. Vitamin C, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, seems to be largely a mythical cure. The only comfort I know is to stay in bed with the radio, some DVDs, a pile of good books, a couple of cats, and a hot toddy made up of whiskey, hot water, lemon and honey. Modern technology has given us some small consolations: paper tissues, and those strange green medicines that help us to breathe at night. But on the whole, it’s a rotten medieval kind of disease with no redeeming features.

I can claim that I once played a very small part in the losing battle against the common cold. Fifty years ago, as an impoverished young writer (the description still applies, except that I’m not young now), I spent weeks at an establishment called The Cold Research Center near Salisbury in England. It was a perfect getaway, and the deal was that we were human guinea pigs held in complete isolation for the duration of the experiments. They tested whether we could catch cold by being wet or chilled, by sitting in a draft, or even by having live viruses inserted into our noses.

I survived all these tests and treatments without so much as a sniffle, and left my solitary confinement at the Cold Research Center rather proud of my part in this great humanitarian medical enterprise. Almost immediately, I caught a cold. The plague, as Albert Camus understood, is other people.

Copyright: David Bouchier