Walter Mencken's guide to self-quarantine

Former San Diego Reader writers – Richard Meltzer, Anne Albright, Duncan Shepherd, Judith Moore – offer their suggestions

Meltzer and Mencken, backstage at The Rapscallion after a Hitchcock and Bull show. We were going to change the world, he and I.
  • Meltzer and Mencken, backstage at The Rapscallion after a Hitchcock and Bull show. We were going to change the world, he and I.

Walter Mencken [descending stairs]: Oh, hello! Welcome to my humble abode, situated in the renovated bomb shelter on the estate of Mt. Helix’s famous Grindle House. (As ever, don’t try to find it on Google Maps; it’s not that kind of famous.)

Alistair Cookie [seated]: A-hem.

WM: Ah. Right. Our humble abode. Times being what they are in the Almost Factual News racket, my living situation has gone from serenely solitary to something rather more complicated. Allow me to introduce Mr. Alistair Cookie.

AC: Good day, ladies and gentlemen. You may recognize me from my appearances on the television, where I am obliged to play a grotesque addict whose slavery to substances is such that he has fried both his cerebral cortex and his vocal cords, and now goes about growling guttural utterances along the lines of, “Me want cookie.” Under ordinary circumstances, I am contractually forbidden from breaking character in public, but here I am in the privacy of my home, and these are hardly ordinary circumstances.

WM: Right. It seems that coronavirus is forcing all sorts of people to social distance themselves all the way into self-quarantine. And Alistair and I got to talking about how the first thing most people will do is start streaming this or that show on this or that electronic screen…

George and Martha dropped by one evening just as I was getting comfortable, ostensibly to get out of the rain, but really to get into a row — and also my good Bourbon.

George and Martha dropped by one evening just as I was getting comfortable, ostensibly to get out of the rain, but really to get into a row — and also my good Bourbon.

AC: … and in all likelihood, that will also be the last thing they do. They’ll binge. They’ll let the algorithm take hold and pour a hot stream of freshly curated content all over their eyeballs — and souls. For days. Weeks, even. It’s unconscionable. I’m not an addict, but I play one on TV, and so I know what a tragedy it is to hand over one’s free will and powers of discernment. That’s why I’ve requested Walter’s help in gathering a few Almost Factual Reader writers from days gone by, in the hopes that they can provide some sound counsel regarding What To Watch and How to Live in these dread latter days.

WM: And for those keeping score at home, remember, these are Almost Factual interviews, nothing more. Let’s start things off with a (Lester) Bang(s), shall we? Richard Meltzer was once described by the late Village Voice — once the largest free weekly in the country — as “the greatest rock critic so far,” with an ability “to get the prose alive on the page that probably surpasses Burroughs’s or Twain’s or Faulkner’s.” For us, he wrote little squibs that sometimes sort of related to various bands coming to town, plus several longish pieces about fellow seminal rock critic and El Cajon native Lester Bangs. Richard?

And who do you suppose was left to clean up the mess? You guessed it: yours truly.

And who do you suppose was left to clean up the mess? You guessed it: yours truly.

Richard Meltzer: Well, well, well, here I seem to be again, the proverbial bad penny turning up, having been offered only marginally more than the proverbial penny for my thoughts — I suppose there just aren’t as many coppers in the coffers these days, what with coronavirus and any number of other sicknesses ailing the weekly rag industry, to say nothing of the general public, suffering as it does from the debilitating symptom of a lost appetite for the printed word, to the point where just recently, that great print organ Playboy magazine (pun regretfully intended) went on what is likely to prove a permanent hiatus — but still happy, or at the very least (and it is very near the very least) willing, to offer my proverbial two cents.

I have a sick and sinking feeling that I’m expected to offer up something on-brand, some icon of Who I Am and What’s Meaningful to Me, and I have an even sicker feeling that Mencken & Co. think it should be Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s Stooges doc from 2016. As if Walt and I don’t both know that making art about artists freezes them in amber, puts them on permanent remove from the world of felt life. Which world has been the one I’ve tried to serve lo these many impecunious years. So yeah, The Stooges, but no, not the Jarmusch. Instead, perversely enough, I’m going with Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 rock-journalism fantasy about a local boy made — well, not good, but definitely famous, never mind the Almost. I’ve already written at length about my deep disregard for Crowe’s crowing in these very pages, so the curious can satisfy themselves in the archives while the rest of us move along.

A little English know-how and a stiff upper lip can accomplish wonders, even in trying circumstances.

A little English know-how and a stiff upper lip can accomplish wonders, even in trying circumstances.

That bloviating bootlick Polonius in Hamlet had less idea than most about the shape of the world and the levers required to move it, but if there’s anything certain in this world, it’s that God is kind to the very dumb, so maybe the gregarious gasbag accidentally drew some blood with that old saw, “To thine own self be true.” Because as Almost Famous teaches us, kids, once you get past the confines of your own personal space, your own selfish self, the pleasant fictions better known as lies will win, and keep on winning, until the truth doesn’t even matter any more. And after that, they’ll be forgotten — and so will you. But all that is out there, and you can take it or leave it. What you’re stuck with — self-quarantined with — is yourself. And if you lie to that august personage, well, it’s gonna be a long and uncomfortable sit. Maybe not at first, but as another Shakespearean scoundrel had it, “Truth will out.”

Mighty Dog! That’s terrible, Ms. Moore. Just terrible. Snort.

Mighty Dog! That’s terrible, Ms. Moore. Just terrible. Snort.

WM: Thanks for the…good thoughts, Richard. I think longtime Reader movie critic Duncan Shepherd has a selection that follows somewhat naturally upon your observations. Duncan, a recent assessment by Nate Bell concluded that “what truly separates Shepherd from the pack” is that “there is nobody better at, or more committed to, describing the surface image of a film. The traces of this obsession (no other word will do) with picture quality were first evident in his 1974 master’s thesis at UCSD. He wrote: ‘The one constant fact of any movie is how it looks, not what it is superficially about, and not what it ultimately means, and certainly not — to put it with due skepticism — what initially it means to be about.’” And for our little viewing party, you’ve chosen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a film you described in your two-star review as “a witty and withering view of the home life of college professors and wives… shot in arty charcoal grays by Haskell Wexler.”

Duncan Shepherd: I must issue a correction: I used the adjectives “witty and withering” to describe the Edward Albee play upon which Mike Nichols’ film was based. What is more, you chose that movie, and asked me to come over and talk about it as a favor to my former employer, a request I granted, despite its gimmicky air, mostly because they canceled March Madness this year and so I found myself with time on my hands. I hope that the Reader’s touching fondness for accuracy hasn’t diminished as much as all that since my departure.

WM: Fair enough; my apologies. Speaking of Wexler and his arty charcoal grays, he says in his audio commentary for the film that Nichols was responsible for the decision to shoot in black and white. He also talks about building a bridge over a bed so that he could shoot down on Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as they looked up, “which was an angle you didn’t see too many of in films.”

DS: Let me do you the favor you asked in the manner I think you’d prefer. Yes, it’s a sort of God’s-eye-view, if God decided to get up close and personal with his creation after it hit the sack. And yes, it helps to add to the film’s air of oppressive atmosphere. It accentuates the trapped-ness of George and Martha, bound together by the view-finder’s inescapable frame, bound otherwise as well, perhaps least of all by their wedding vows and much more by their mutual animosities, addictions, self-loathing, and deceptions. And because it is God’s eye, it judges them, even as the film’s dialogue is careful to provide context, tea, and sympathy. Well, alcohol and sympathy. So the movie serves as a handy sort of Illustrated Guide to the Dangers of Self-Quarantine, even with, or perhaps especially with, one’s nearest and dearest. And yes again, the eventual removal of their mutual self-deception through an all-night violent verbal cage match echoes Mr. Meltzer’s promise of “an uncomfortable sit.” So while it remains a gimmicky selection, it’s not a terrible gimmick, except insofar as it’s always terrible to treat a movie as any kind of instrument of moral pedagogy.

WM: Well, except, as you mention, there is that illustrative force that comes from putting things onscreen. For an example, we turn now to Anne Albright, who wrote the Kid Stuff column about her growing family around the turn of the millennium. Anne, I understand you’d like to take this opportunity to address your kids?

Anne Albright: Yes, thanks, Walter. Who knows? This way, someone might see it and text them about it, and they’d actually pay attention. That’s a joke, by the way — though not the part about them paying attention to texts. Anyway: an open letter to my many children, living and now also attending school under one roof in the same house with their parents, paternal grandparents, uncle, and cousin.

  • Turning and turning in the widening gyre
  • The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
  • Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
  • Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
  • — William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Life is a constant struggle to keep it together in the face of universal entropy. Eventually, you will lose that struggle: your soul will separate from your body, and then the parts of your body, lacking that cohesive force that gives them oneness and form, will begin to separate from each other. Once the falcon cannot hear the falconer, you will become one of the things that falls apart. Life is what happens between now and then. There will be times when the idea of dissipation — of just letting things go their own way — will have great appeal. But successful living means keeping it together.

“Charity begins at home,” goes the old saying. Here’s a secret: so does its opposite. So does everything else. I’ve always told you that; now that you are stuck at home, you are going to learn it for yourself. You hate feeling cooped up; you want to go out into the world and live your life. Barring that, you want to be left alone as much as possible with your smartphone. But here is the truth: your life is not your own to live. You are part of something larger, the thing that made you and sustains you — this family. Crisis helps make that clear. You want to go off somewhere and dissipate, but successful living means keeping things together. Because if you head off and pick up a virus and bring it home, you could kill your grandparents, a serious failure on the family front.

And what’s true at home is true in the larger world: it’s the elderly and the compromised who are most at risk, and you are stuck with them in something larger than yourself called civilization — another thing that helped to make and sustain you. Civilizations and families fall apart, just like people. They endure and are successful insofar as we struggle to keep them together. It feels like an impingement, I know. That’s because you still think that doing what you want is the most important thing.

My movie is M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, because of what happens when the family in it self-quarantines. In an attempt to comfort his family during a very scary time — an alien invasion — Dad asks his two kids and his younger brother what they want for dinner. Everyone asks for something different, including Dad. Everyone gets just what they want, but when we see them at dinner — from the vantage point of the exploded kitchen — nobody wants to eat. Dissipation sounded good, but it’s not what they need. What they need is to be a family. Happily, Dad figures that out, and while he and his brother barricade the house, he tells the kids about their births. He reminds them of their (deceased) mother, and of the love that brought them into the world and still sustains them.

So. Be kind to each other in this stressful time. Clean up after yourself. Give whatever help I ask for; better still, find ways to help without being asked. And when you’re free to head out again, take what you learn here and carry it with you. Keep it together.

WM: Thanks, Anne; I bet those kids would have been glad to have you as their new mom. And as long as we’re getting prescriptive, why don’t we check in with Saffron, the Reader’s very own advice columnist from the days after the Internet replaced the all-knowing Matthew Alice? What are you watching, Saffie?

Saffron: The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was John F. Kennedy who came up with the canard that “in the Chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” Wikipedia helpfully corrects this to indicate that it’s more like “danger at a point of juncture,” but it also notes that the truthier meaning has spread throughout the world, even to some native Chinese speakers. Almost like a highly contagious virus brought to China by the U.S. Army, just like foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian suggested!

WM: Um, Saffron, the Reader’s not on the list of American publications that get paid to run Chinese propaganda.

Saffron: It’s not? Gosh, that’s sad. I thought that’s how print was staying afloat at this point. Getting back to crisis and opportunity. My advice for the present homebound moment is just this: don’t waste it. Look at Alec Guinness in this film. He plays a British POW in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. It’s not exactly self-quarantine, but he was ordered to surrender, so there are similarities. His men are then commanded to build a railway bridge for the Japanese to use, and so naturally, they do their worst work, hoping to sabotage the project. But Guinness sees things differently: as he says, “I know our men. You’ve got to keep them occupied.” What’s more, “It’s essential that they should take pride in their job.” The crisis — building a bridge for the enemy while in prison — becomes an opportunity. For preserving pride and dignity. For achieving excellence. For personal satisfaction.

WM: For aiding and abetting the enemy.

Saffron: Don’t cloud the issue. The point here is that any period of enforced downtime is pure potential for doing something worthwhile. Look around your home for clues, little things that remind you of big projects that you never had time to tackle properly. Now you do. So tackle them. Don’t fritter away the hours until they curdle and sour. Don’t tell yourself how nice it is to have nothing you have to do, and use that as an excuse for doing nothing. It doesn’t have to be something odious like deep cleaning or home repair — though both of those would be super-satisfying. Maybe you want to learn to paint landscapes. Maybe there’s a big fat novel a friend gave you, hoping you’d read it and be up for a discussion. Maybe there’s an idea for a screenplay rattling around in your brain, just waiting for this kind of downtime to find its way onto the page. Time is a gift. Don’t waste it reading Twitter updates on Trump’s handling of the pandemic and scrolling through Instagram accounts documenting empty public spaces. Who knows? Maybe by the time all this ends, you’ll have found a new, slightly more directed, possibly more meaningful way to live. At the very least, you can get the gunk off the refrigerator shelves — you know, the sticky patch back behind the milk jugs.

WM: Ew, I hate that stuff. Still, it does bring up the subject of food — a real and necessary consideration as panic buying gives way to hoarding and Campbell’s Soup, Inc. becomes the stock market’s shining light amid the darkness. Judith Moore, besides serving as the Reader’s senior editor for many years, you wrote countless articles for the us, and also several books — one of them, Never Eat Your Heart Out, a memoir built around food. There’s a smorgasbord of great food movies out there; Big Night, Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman

Judith Moore: I think I’ll take To Catch a Thief.

WM: The Hitchcock film? Cary Grant as an ex-jewel thief living in the French Riviera?

JM: When we first see him, he’s gardening at his hilltop villa. He’s pruning his roses, but when he sees the police approaching, he puts down his shears and takes off his gloves. It’s a wonderful garden, with low stone walls framing the dull yellow decomposed granite pathways lined with pots of fuschia chrysanthemums, and ornamental citrus trees casting little globs of shade. He has help around the house — a stout Frenchwoman who does his cooking and cleaning — but the gardening he reserves for himself. It’s how I would like to retire: wealthy enough to live where I please and do what I like, and what I like is to make my roses bloom like mad.

WM: I admit I had forgotten about your yen for gardening, what with all the food writing.

JM: The two are entwined like lovers. I remember a piece I wrote on tomatoes…

WM: But To Catch a Thief? Is there even food in that movie — I mean, besides the picnic where Grace Kelly asks Grant if he’d like a leg or a breast?

JM: Of course there is: Grant’s character has an insurance agent over for lunch. They begin with soup and rolls and move on to Quiche Lorraine. Everything is simple and delicious and in perfect good taste. That’s how I prefer to think of French cooking, ever since Mighty Dog.

WM: I’m sorry, what?

JM: “In the little town where I lived so unhappily and happily for so many years, a day came when everyone ‘went gourmet.’ I can’t tell you precisely when we went gourmet. I know that on a hot August Saturday night in 1977, when poor bloated Elvis had been dead only a few days, culinary progress had been such that our set was eating a meal that tasted as much of the names of dishes — à la this and that — as of food itself.”

WM: That’s from your book, right?

JM: “That year Reginald, an old friend of mine, was spending a lot of time around our house… He thought Coraville gourmet madness funny, and always wanted to hear about the latest dishes. One day one of us said to the other that if you gave it a French name, people happily would eat dog food. No sooner was this thought spoken than Reginald and I were throwing on coats and heading to Safeway… We bought onions, garlic, thick-sliced bacon, shelled pistachios, bread crumbs, and parsley” — and dog food. “The most acceptable, for texture and odor, were Mighty Dog and a Safeway house brand… By midnight, the pâté — or pet-té, as we were calling it — felt firm.” That Friday, “not a soul, other than Sally, didn’t spread thick smudges of Mighty Dog on the fresh bread we’d brought. Not a soul, including our trio of gastronomic leaders, didn’t compliment Mighty Dog’s richness and the just-rightness of pistachios. The more Mighty Dog my friends ate, the dirtier a betraying Judas I felt… Almost 20 years down the road now, I still feel bad that I did this and wish I hadn’t.”

WM: Still, it’s a great story.

JM: Perhaps one worth bearing in mind as the pantry starts to get bare in the coming weeks.

WM: Happy self-quarantine, everybody.

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