I’ve had lunch with politicians, clergy, reporters and people who’ve just been indicted at Manny’s Cafeteria and Delicatessen in Chicago, and there’s a code of silence over the clatter: it doesn’t count. The schmear of cream cheese thick enough to be a ski jump? No calories! Potato pancakes hefty as manhole covers?
No doubt there are artisanal knish-makers today, but no place quite like Manny’s, which opened in 1942. Lots of famous names routinely imperil their arteries there. But the real show is the a happy babble of voices in English, Yiddish Spanish, Hindi, and bunches of bankers in pinstripes noshing alongside crews in scuffed boots who just got off their shift on a sanitation truck.
The coronavirus shutdown began in March. One of the benefits of a family business is they can run it more like family than a business–for a while. Dan Raskin, the 4th generation of his family to run Manny’s, says they kept all 43 staff members working, making meals for health care workers, and made sure staff brought food home to their families. “They’re our families, too,” Dan Raskin told us.
In her now-world-famous writing, Chinese author Fang Fang implores: “The departed are gone, but the living must go on. As before. I just hope we can remember.”
The writer’s detailed account of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, originally published in Chinese as a daily diary as the virus rapidly spread there, becomes available in English on Friday as Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Bits and clips of Fang Fang’s writing on the situation in Wuhan made it out of China and into English as the outbreak was unfolding, but now the full account will be available in English.
Memory is central to Fang Fang’s diary. So is making sense of the complete absence of things: of life as we knew it; of any and all economic activity. Like tens of millions of other readers, I read Fang Fang in the monotony of self-isolation, looking for a common understanding of how the pandemic had changed the country we were living in — China.
Before the novel coronavirus engulfed the Chinese city of Wuhan, Fang Fang was already an award-winning novelist of realist fiction. But her chronicle of the lockdown of her hometown Wuhan might be her most lasting work.
Fang Fang penned her first entry on January 25, two days after the city was suddenly sealed off from the rest of China, to let friends and anyone curious understand “what is really going on here on the ground in Wuhan.” Over the next 59 entries spanning more than two months, her writing veers from a collection of the quotidian aspects of life under lockdown to her mounting frustration with local officials — no small gesture of bravery in China.
Out of necessity, her diary supersedes any kind of traditional literary work, in both content and form.
By early February, China’s Internet censors were working overtime, during the height of the epidemic, to erase critical content. Fang Fang’s diary thus often serves as an archive, describing videos and news items usually deleted by the time she managed to publish her daily entry. As her online diary begins to attract millions of readers, she begins incorporating information gleaned from text messages and phone calls from well-connected friends in the arts and medical fields, forming a kind of written collage of Wuhan.
Eventually, the censors came for Fang Fang. Loyal readers took screenshots of her entries before they were deleted, or helped repost entires on various other social media channels.
Unfortunately, the English translation of her diary in book form is not able to capture this multidimensionality. Wuhan Diary loses much of its engaging, real-time nature by condensing her 60 entries into a single tome. Nonetheless, it is a heroic feat of speedy translation from veteran Michael Berry.
“You have that whole connecting universe extending from her diary entries…of course, reading it now, after the fact, is a very different experience,” Berry, who is also translating Fang Fang’s last novel, Soft Burial, told NPR. Still, readers in the U.S. will likely find many of her gripes about local officials and the burden of social distancing all too relevant.
Fang Fang’s Wuhan diary remains significant as a document of the trivial, tragic and absurd during Wuhan’s 76 days of lockdown. Such a document is especially important now, when so much of how the coronavirus spread — and what governments across the world did or did not do to contain it — is already being contested by the U.S. and China.
“Imagine this: the author Fang Fang did not exist in today’s Wuhan…What would we have heard? What would we have seen?” asked writer Yan Lianke in a widely-shared online talk in late February. Memory, Yan goes on to say, is the most basic hedge against future injustice: “While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way.”
Fang Fang’s diary, then, is an important record how Wuhan’s people suffered and ultimately persevered, even as the state wants to erase its initial fumbles from the official record.
Raising questions does not make one popular in China these days. Nearly immediately after she began publishing her entries, an online army of ultra-nationalists deluged Fang Fang, indignant that in airing doubts about the superiority of China’s coronavirus containment she was betraying her motherland. That her diary could be published in English only months after the Wuhan lockdown was lifted, they hinted darkly, meant Fang Fang was deliberately aiding Western countries to smear China and to profit off the suffering of Wuhan. Berry says even he has received thousands of angry emails and death threats for simply translating her writing.
One anonymous letter, allegedly written by a high school student, lambasted Fang Fang for airing China’s dirty laundry out for everyone to see. “My child, I also want to tell you that when I was 16 years old, I was much worse off than you are. At that time, I had never even heard of words like ‘independent thought,'” Fang Fang gently wrote back.
China today is more globalized and more confident than ever. It has also become more hostile to foreign ideas, suspicious they are Western designs to stop China’s rise, and has demonstrated its willingness to engage in bare-knuckles diplomacy.
Voices like Fang Fang’s — who remember well the brutal decade of the Cultural Revolution, when adolescent Maoists tortured, persecuted and beat to death the politically incorrect, as well as the subsequent prosperity of economic reform and opening— are increasingly rare in China. But in the context of larger conversations being had about China and its place in the world, American readers would do well to remember they exist.
If the pandemic shuts down TV production for many months, can the industry still crank out new seasons of television series that viewers will watch?
Tonight, CBS’ legal drama All Rise hints at an answer with an episode crafted after actors and production staffers began isolating in their homes. It’s the first network TV drama to film a new virtual episode about the coronavirus pandemic and it unfolds so seamlessly you’d never otherwise know it was developed during a global crisis.
The story centers on an ambitious idea by the show’s lead character, Simone Missick’s Judge Lola Carmichael, to conduct a trial over video chat – with attorneys, court staff and even the judge herself appearing from their homes in a proceeding livestreamed publicly (in the show’s fictional world).
The trial is a metaphor for what the show itself is trying to pull off. Producers said during a press conference last week – held via video chat, of course – that they didn’t want to end the show’s season on the episode they filmed just before the lockdown.
So they asked actors to become one-person production crews: cobbling together technology, turning rooms in their homes into sets and handling makeup or costuming with whatever they had on hand, coached by the show’s remote production staffers.
All Rise airs on CBS, a network known for its formulaic cops and crime dramas, so there are times when characters are a little too obvious in arguing over the legal and health issues – like watching the dialogue leading up to a Schoolhouse Rock song.
Like NBC’s Parks and Recreation reunion last week, CBS’ All Rise episode really centers on how friends and family – both biological and work-related – need to connect at a time of disconnection. It’s an obvious note, but it’s difficult to muster a profound, overarching insight on a pandemic when you’re in the middle of it.
Producers of scripted TV face tough choices planning for the future: Do you make the pandemic a part of your show’s ongoing story line, or ignore it the way Friends sidestepped 9/11? Can a scripted series feature multiple episodes filmed in lockdown before viewer fatigue sets in?
Projects like CBS’ All Rise season finale, along with the Parks and Recreation reunion, still feel more like ambitious experiments than a way forward for scripted TV – a creative nod to the challenges we all face, crafted to tide us over until a new normal emerges.
If anything, I’m a dilettante. I’ve played many games with gusto for hours upon hours, to near-completion, only to get distracted by something — work, husband, dog, whatever — that keeps me away from them for a few days. By the time I pick up the controller again, everything about the game in question — my location, my objectives, whatever the hell the L3 button does — has been wiped from memory. I’m a babe in the virtual woods, but my opponents don’t know that. They know only that I’m at a relatively high level, that I’ve unlocked most of the map, and I’ve secured myself the good armor. They come at me with their advanced-level ferocity, and proceed to wipe the floor with me.
It’s dispiriting, so, over and over again, game after game, I bail, thinking I’ll come back to this. Someday. When there’s time.
And now? Today? With the world as it is, there’s anxiety and uncertainty — plenty of both.
But also, finally, there’s time. Lots and lots and lots of it.
Some will eat through the hours they’ll be spending at home with books, movies, television shows and games they’ve never encountered, enriching their experience with novel discoveries. I’ll be doing … some of that.
But what I’ve already started doing is returning to games set in vast worlds full of panoramic landscapes and lonely vistas, with craggy mountains and undulating seas, with bustling cities and sun-dappled meadows. It’s supremely comforting to find yourself wandering paths you’ve wandered before, their every turn and twist lodged somewhere in your muscle memory. It’s satisfying to look at the world map and see its every once-feathery boundary has sharpened into rigorous clarity. Because the secret of open-world gaming is that you determine just how open any given game is. Yes, you can diligently tick off the objectives like some kind of grade-grubbing grind, or you can, lovingly, chill. Here’s what I’m playing/chilling with now, and what I’m playing/chilling with them on.
The vast and immersive
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
Sure, in this latest Legend of Zelda game, you could do what the game wants you to do, and collect the things that will help you fight the other things that will help you to rescue the princess. Or you could do what I do, and ride your little horsey through Hyrule’s breathtaking valleys and mountains and hills and rivers until you find a nice spot to watch the clouds pass by as butterflies flutter around you.
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PS4)
It’s a bit harder to avoid combat in this game than it is in BotW, but you can do it — I believe in you. Me, I always plays as a Mage, so for me “combat” is more just “backing quickly away from the scary thing coming at me while throwing panicked fireballs at it,” but whatever. If you follow the story path, you’ll learn to talk to dragons, but you’ll have to fight a lot of them, too. Why not just visit villages and learn how to forge your own armor and weapons? Treat it like the Learning Annex, if the Learning Annex had mudcrabs.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4)
See Breath of the Wild, above, in re: riding your little horsey. Only this time it’s the Old West, instead of a fairy tale kingdom, and you’re a cowboy, not an elf. Also you probably don’t smell very good.
Shenmue 3 (PS4)
You’re young martial artist Ryo Hazuki, and you’re tracking down your father’s killer in and around the the vast city of Guilin, China. Sure, go ahead and fight folk a lot, if that’s your thing. Or you could just wander the city and forage herbs, and gamble, and drive a forklift (long story).
The fun and frustrating
Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)
The story elements of the game are strong and challenging, but who’s kidding who — the best part of this, and of any Spidey game, is web-slinging your way from Battery Park to Washington Heights, while pausing to perch atop the Chrysler Building and just … look. (Note: This is the rare game I’ve played to 100% completion, unlocking every unlockable thing, up to and including the ability to play as Spider-Man dressed only in his tighty-whities, and sending him strolling though the Ramble in Central Park.)
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (PS4)
As much as I love fighting baddies with a lightsaber — and love it I do, though I’m terrible at it — this game turned out to be less open than I’d hoped. Several levels feel a bit too Tomb Raider-y for their own good. (Why do I have to keep jumping off ledges to grab a rope? I’m a Jedi! With the Force! I should make the rope come to me!)
God of War (PS4)
Everyone’s favorite bald, muscle-bound gruff-but-not-particularly-lovable demigod Kratos is back, with his plucky son in tow, and this time he’s on a quest through the realm of Norse mythology, though he’s characteristically unhappy about being the plaything of a whole new set of gods. The game keeps pushing you to the next objective, but don’t let it boss you around — stop in one of its more gorgeous settings to smell the lutefisk.
The weirdly addictive
I mentioned, on a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, how much I love old-school Real-Time Strategy games like Age of Empires and Battle for Middle-Earth, in which you start with a town center and a villager and gradually grow your settlement, collecting supplies and building armies with which to swarm your enemies. It’s a genre of gaming that’s fallen on hard times, recently, with the move to online, where people can purchase upgrades and proceed to kick your butt.
Me, I love the relaxing atmosphere of building up your town and seeing all your little villagers toiling away happily. I asked listeners to send me suggestions of modern strategy games they liked and a listener (Thanks, Houston Taylor!) suggested this one, and man, does it scratch precisely the right itch.
You’re in charge of a village of Vikings who must survive harsh winters and mythical beasts and … other Viking tribes. The graphics are simple but charming, and while I’m still mastering the controls on the Switch, it’s exactly the right soothing/engrossing/addictive fuel mixture I’ve been hungering for, as I settle in for a long quarantine.
A note on massive multiplayer online games
They’re not for me. Or at least, they weren’t.
I’ve tried a few, over the years, but … well. The nature of having to play with or against strangers always rubbed me the wrong way. I mean, if I wanted to get gay slurs hurled at me by a nine-year-old I could just walk out my door, without paying a monthly subscription.
But now … I don’t know. Even this early into social distancing, the notion of entering a virtual space and seeing teeming throngs of other people’s avatars just sort of … walking around? And going up to them, and interacting? I imagine it’d feel wholly different, today.
I mean, inevitably I’d be the noob getting repeatedly pwned by some jerk who’s camping at the respawn. But I can’t help thinking that before too long I’ll be grateful for a little human contact-by-proxy, even if takes the form of utter, thorough and unremitting pwnage.