What to do in a gloomy winter day?

Wednesday awakened every bit as cold, gloomy and clammy as it was in Chicago when we visited over Thanksgiving, about 35 degrees and windy. I cancelled plans to putz around the garden as soon as I stepped outside. Then we discovered our internet connection, and along with it, the internet radio stations that provide background music, news and noise all day long, had also left the building. Stew tried to break the unexpected quietude with some music from our Canadian satellite TV, except that apparently the free music channels had been eliminated during the last service “update.”

Ellie: And what am I going to do today?

Félix showed up as if he were auditioning for Nanook of the North, wearing double hoodies and a knit hat. To avoid working outside, he dreamed up a paint job in the garage, with the door closed, of a wrought iron table. Even the dogs gathered glumly around the Christmas tree, not knowing what to do with themselves, and went back to sleep.

After breakfast, inside the house, the silence felt like a vacuum. 

What to do?
So I went for the heap of magazines and books on a small table by the side of the La-Z-Boy in the office, and I found the weighty semi-monthly “The New York Review of Books,” to which I’ve subscribed for a couple of years, but not often actually read to any great extent.

The Review immodestly bills itself as a publication “inspired by the idea that the discussion of important books is an indispensable literary activity,” along with, I suppose, “The Paris Review,” “Lapham’s Quarterly,” and the “London Review of Books” to which I do not subscribe.

If I’m a fair representative of this universe, I suspect a good many of the subscribers to these hifalutin publications are “aspirational subscribers” who hope the intellectual content will filter into their brains, as if by osmosis, even if they read only one article per issue, if that.

Nanook don’t want to be outside today.

There are others, though, like my friend Steve C., who reputedly vacuums every word of The Economist, a brainish London-based newsweekly, while simultaneously admiring the sunsets from his villa in Melaque, a Pacific Ocean resort. It takes all kinds. 

Instead, for many people these magazines accumulate neatly on the coffee table, mostly untouched, and the collection culled periodically, with virgin copies piously donated to the public library. Some people I know confess facing the same dilemma with their copies of the “New Yorker” magazine, which I actually read.

In my defense, the Review is a tough beast to tackle. It’s tabloid-size, with oceans of tiny type, that are, occasionally and mercifully, broken up by large ads. Concepts like open design or large, stunning photographs to hook the reader, have yet to reach the Review. 

Typically, the articles are thousands of words long and test the attention span of a casual visitor. Some are about current events (Trump!?) but mostly are reviews of books about relatively arcane topics such as the Renaissance painter Verrocchio, under whom Leonardo da Vinci studied.

But with gloom outside and silence inside, I buckled myself to the La-Z-Boy, and with a mug of coffee in hand, read most of the Dec. 19 issue of the Review.

Here’s the news: It was a most enjoyable and fascinating three hours. 

I read about the rites and rituals of the ‘Ndrangheta, as the Calabria-based branch of the Italian Mafia is called. Despite its criminal mission, the ‘Ndrangheta is dominated by religious rituals dating back hundreds of years. An example is the custom of men kissing each other on the cheek. A novice undergoing initiation goes around kissing each of the senior members twice on the cheeks, except for the Big Tuna, or capo società, who gets three kisses. If someone comes and kisses you lightly on the lips, it’s time to run for the nearest exit, because that’s a sign you’ve been marked for execution. 

Another article was about Haiti, which was colonized by the French, who imposed the most brutal plantation system in the world, under which slaves were literally worked to death. The French assumed a “natural” annual death rate of five percent of the enslaved workforce, and just rounded up more slaves as replacement. Even after it was freed by France, Haiti was forced to pay onerous “reparations” to France, that all but guaranteed eternal misery for the country. I visited Haiti twice and, for some reason, it holds a special place in my mind.

A third article was about the Oregon standoff in 2016, when some heavily armed militants took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and in the ensuing melee one of the protestors, with the odd name of LaVoy Finicum, was shot to death. I walked away from the article persuaded the standoff was mostly farcical right-wing theater, rather than a genuine protest.

None of these readings are likely to fatten my retirement portfolio or teach me how to tune my car, but all were nevertheless worthwhile, by, if nothing else, taking my mind from the grind of daily, repetitive, and often vacuous “current events,” particularly politics, and Trump and his impeachment. There’s a vast world of ideas, history and events out there, we sometimes forget, beyond the quotidian, and often trifling, “breaking news.” 

It was as if my La-Z-Boy had been transformed into a first-class seat for a three-hour flight to places and events I didn’t know or remember, with not even flight attendants fluttering over me, offering food or drink. 

But by early afternoon, this fanciful plane was forced to land: The sun came out and the internet came back to life. It was time for lunch and for the usual noise of daily life to return.

The unexpected spell was broken.

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