Amy's Pandemic Playlist

Nine months of 2020 in song

IT IS MARCH 2020, and I feel sick. The day before, I had a student who couldn’t stop coughing, and now my throat is sore and my body feels like I fell off a building. This is before the Soviet-era echo of “toilet paper hoarding” began, before the stores ran out of Clorox wipes. So while I canceled my classes, I still took my kid to the dentist.

The kids’ “fun” dentist is full of touch screens and toys, and the drill comes with ample gas and the best kids’ videos. I was holding her hand and the dentist was drilling when suddenly my body went hot and cold, my skin beaded in sweat and bumped up in chills. I remember the dentist saying, “mom, are you alright?” and I remember saying “no.” I remember being laid out on the floor, my legs propped on a chair, surrounded by dentists and hygienists and the billing specialist from the front desk who used to be a nurse all regarding me with a mixture of care and fear. My kiddo lay alone under the gas watching Lego Batman and I asked if she was okay, and they kind of laughed. “She doesn’t know anything happened.” One of them brought me a juice box while another took my blood pressure: for the first time in my life it was high, very high, instead of low – even when I was carrying twins my blood pressure stayed low. The kindhearted dentist who sings the whole Little Mermaid soundtrack while she drills looked me deep in the eyes and told me to see a doctor.

I would try, but they asked me not to come – they were limiting who they wanted there, even then. I hadn’t been in contact with any known cases, so the nurse on the phone said it was probably a combination of stress and flu.

I haven’t been back to campus since, my kids haven’t been back to school. The week that followed was Spring Break, and after that I taught online for one week, then two, then for the rest of the semester. The world stopped. The coffeeshop next door went to drive-thru only, and their vast parking lot behind our house became the only playground we were willing to risk: we stood out under the sun watching for cars while the kids spun in circles on their training wheels singing “Afro Circus” from Madagascar 3. I gave up on doing my job with the kids around – I couldn’t think. Instead, I woke up at 2am and did as much as I could until they woke, by which time I was burned out and brain dead and good for nothing but their games.

IT IS APRIL 2020, and my husband is attending his uncle’s Zoom funeral in his car. He’s parked at the cemetery you can see from our yard, because that feels more respectful.

His other uncle is off the ventilator, and he’s is featured on a local station in Texas for this feat of unlikely survival. My aunt makes the local news in Ohio for canceling her wedding to get married in the parking lot of a nursing home, so her new husband’s mom can watch from a window. By email, my students tell me stories of boredom and woe. The guy who was coughing that day lost his job, his wife lost her job, and now they live with their dog in a shed with no running water or electricity in a field her family owns with 22 horses and a jackass. Submitting assignments is difficult from his phone, but he feels lucky: he’s safe as can be, he says, because he couldn’t be farther from people.

We live in the city, surrounded by people. Our little backyard an island sanctuary, especially when the coffeeshop reopens, and waves of cars containing the maskless lap against our shores. Our lot is a rectangle, two streets North and East and a parking lot to the West. The south side, long an empty lot from which “blight” had been removed, is now a muddy pit crossed by railroad ties and I-beams, over which hovers a house dragged here from across town, cocked at 12.5 degrees.

Repeatedly I forget about the crooked house, then I pass a window and it flicks my nerves, a reminder the world is askew. If I look West beyond the parking lot, past our town’s six-lane MLK, I see rolling hills of monuments where the first 80,000 of this city’s people were returned to the earth, and my husband’s orange car, where he sits grieving and catching Pokémon.

I’m planting a garden.

When the future seems impossible, Americans plant garden rows – an expression of fear we call “Victory,” a salute to myths of WWII, in which Captain America grabs Rosie the Riveter and plants a kiss, and she swoons. Planting seeds is Hope born of investing in future things: in the shadow of the sloping and interloping old-new house, upon this sliver-of-an-acre of a midwestern city people mispronounce, I sow brussels sprouts which will become food in December. Doing so, tell the universe I intend for December to come.

The kids want to watch Frozen II. I wasn’t a big fan of the first one but the sun’s going down and I’m up for whatever. The film begins with childhood innocence, just like before, then brings us to a present-day and the song “Some Things Never Change,” about how stable and nice the world is, even though we’re all getting older and the harsh realities of death and decay (and marriage) surround us. The song starts out referencing friendship and romance and family, but then it’s about the kingdom. The whole town starts singing: “we’ll always live in the kingdom of plenty, that stands for the good of the many!” In the crescendo Elsa promises them their “flag will always fly,” and they sing: “may our good luck last, may our past be past”… “though the future remains unknown.”

Naïve Disneyites! Before the night is through, the citizens are displaced and the kingdom threatened with permanent destruction. Why? Spoilers: because grandfather attempted a genocide, and turns out the past is not past and good luck never lasts. Because their kingdom didn’t stand for “the good of the many,” it stood for one rich and well-armed man’s attempt to control others. When the film culminates in Anna’s nearly suicidal run to destroy the dam – the monument to “progress” whose destruction will wipe out their kingdom – because it’s the only way to right historical wrongs, I’m thinking damn Disney, you went deep, this shit is real, this is life.

But before that…

Anna learns the truth about their grandfather, and learns her sister Elsa died to discover that truth. Olaf disintegrates into flurries, snowman death. She’s alone.

In a heap, barely audible, she sings “hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb.” She sings, “this grief has gravity, it pulls me down.” This little drawing of a woman bereft in a dark cave sings, “…but a tiny voice whispers in my mind, you are lost, hope is gone, but you must go on, and do the next right thing.”

She rises, and she sings, “I won’t look too far ahead, it’s too much for me to take. But break it down to this next breath, this next step… this next choice is one that I can make.

“So I walk through this night stumbling blindly towards the light, and do the next right thing.” And my kids want to know if I’m all right, because I’m sobbing like a fucking baby.

IT IS MAY 2020. I deleted Facebook. I deleted Twitter. Craigslist is my new social media: personal nostalgia with an acquisitive edge. I scroll ads to see what strangers are selling, and come across a photo of two fat fluffy “lavender Orpington” chickens. Fertile eggs for sale, $20 for one dozen. I tell my six year old twins and they squeal: “purple chickens?!” They have to have them.

Our first pandemic family outing: we drive, masked and cash in hand, one town over — it’s the suburb with the casino and the Bass Pro Shop. The seller comes out to the driveway cradling her carton, and she exchanges her precious package for a mere 20 bucks. My voice muffled beneath three sewn-together layers of the kids’ old pajamas, I promise I’ll let her know how it goes.

I add the first song to my “pandemic playlist”: it’s The Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care.”

The kids sing, their dad drives, and I use my phone to scan prices for incubators online: they’re high. I decide to build my own. Doesn’t every kindergarten teacher hatch chicks with a lightbulb and a cardboard box? My chickens, and therefore the eggs they provide, would be the product of my labor, not another purchase on Amazon.

In this march of myths and symbols I should acknowledge: a planted seed, an unhatched egg, these are hope, but they are also vulnerability. I need the solace of stories as much as anyone, but I don’t want to drown in my own bullshit. In dreams I can’t protect my children, as roads crumble, buildings fall. In dreams I take them to school and discover chambers of blood and illogic and screaming tears, teachers with the expressions of Auschwitz inmates. I tell people I get up to work at 2am because the kids are asleep – which is true. But that’s also when I always wake up with my heart in my throat.

I struggled for weeks to balance temperature and humidity, chasing elusive equilibrium. I turned my eggs by hand three times a day, imagining fully feathered fluffy-bottomed egg layers. But when I candled them and looked inside, I saw only golden yolk floating in clear albumen. Five have a little more, maybe something developing, maybe something developing that died.

“Doesn’t life want to happen?” I ask my husband.

“If you believe Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.”

“He got eaten in that movie.”

“No, that was the other guy.”

Once upon a summer blockbuster, humans fiddled with nature and were chastened, brutally. Brutality is nature’s first language, the mother tongue. The dismembered arm of Samuel L. Jackson learned its lesson, but sequels exist to remind us that some people never learn.

The second song on my pandemic playlist is “Everything’s Not Awesome” from Lego Movie 2. “Maybe we should aim for not bad,” the crated toys sing, “cause not bad right now would be real great.”

Viruses want to happen, but they’re not technically alive — like algorithms seeking virality online, they are inert without a society of hosts.

My mom texts: “So this is what it took to get the news to talk about something else.” Instead of the virus it’s Minneapolis in flames.

I tell her: “it’s the same something – if every life doesn’t count, none of us do.” The connection is basic: we all need to breathe.

We spin through space on our pale blue dot, a flock of keeners and cons and innocents, a society of hosts who must breathe. Ideas spread among us: corporations, the electoral college, sheriff’s deputies… they suffocate in different ways, concepts like viruses, never alive to die, memes that feel nothing, think nothing, want nothing as they go viral, as they kill some and spare others in a vicious system of feedback loops that amplifies noise and reinforces inequality.

The third song on my pandemic playlist is John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels.”

At the end of three weeks, all hope gone, my post-mortem reveals they were strong-shelled, healthy-yolked, fertile eggs, kept too hot or too cold. Cause of death: me.

And that promise? I did not keep.

IT IS JUNE 2020, and I’m back on Craigslist. A woman an hour out in the countryside is selling baby chicks, a “barnyard mix,” for $2 each, “no contact” purchases only. We arrange it by text: put the money under a rock on her front porch, pick up the peeping cardboard box. I paid her for a dozen, but she gave me thirteen. In chicken-keeper lingo, extra chicks thrown in are called “packing peanuts.”

Some of the chicks are yellow, some are black, one is brown, and one is part ‘silkie’ – with five toes and a poof on its head. They are, as promised, “all mixed up,” grabbed at random from a barnyard genetics experiment, and taped into an Amazon box with holes poked for air. They are my Hope but they are helpless; they are lives that want to happen, but they are at the mercy of me. Will I keep them warm enough, but not too warm? Can I prevent the outbreak of disease? Can I avoid stepping on one, keep my kids from carrying them by their necks? Fed and watered sufficiently? Fourth on my playlist: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

In the box, my little chicks peep.

In the fifth song on my playlist, “Avant Gardener” by Courtney Barnett, a woman wakes on a hot day, everything around her house a mess. Inspired by her gardener neighbor, she says “I feel proactive, I pull out weeds,” and then “all of the sudden, I’m having trouble breathing in.”

The asthma attack leads to an ambulance being called and she thinks, “oh no,” because “I’d rather die than owe the hospital ‘til I get old.” When help arrives, “the paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar, I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying.” And the song ends with the refrain, “I’m not that good at breathing in…”

I loved this song before the pandemic, but now that we’re months in, it feels… not prophetic, but maybe just clear sighted? We’re just fragile people with simple desires, caught in this fucked up system.

We’re broken because we’re hypocrites, espousing ideals of equality from platforms built on genocide and slavery; a nation of immigrants who discriminated against every next immigrant wave; we invented races from human diversity, just like we invented “Ohio,” “Kentucky,” and “Alabama” from rivers, mountains, forests, and fields. Then we try to enforce our made-up borders with our made up laws. Against nature. Against viruses. Against each other. 

Most of us just want to nest, to make our homes. Like the “Avant Gardener,” we dream of “tomatoes on the front steps, sunflowers, bean sprouts, sweet corn, and radishes.” But it’s too hot. It’s getting hotter. The air is terrible from all the fires. One wrong breath and we owe: debtors to the corporate “health trade.” Do we really value celebrities and performers more than the people who literally save our lives?

This song is not about the pandemic, it’s about the world that the pandemic lighted into relief: human needs unmet while inescapable systems warm the planet, foul the environment, and nudge us towards agribusiness-provided food and debt servitude.

The governor of my state says our lives can’t be prioritized ahead of our livelihoods. I’m puzzled: Ma’am? Without my life, my livelihood is moot? I’d rather be poor and alive than rich and dead. Perhaps what she meant was, “your lives can’t be prioritized ahead of our livelihoods”? Cruel, but at least it makes sense. Does she mean the lives of workers in meat processing, health care, restaurants and hospitality, their lives can’t be prioritized ahead of the livelihoods of her friends in the ownership class?

Unique human lives should not be treated like so many chickens at a battery farm: genetically altered, fattened with hormones, de-beaked and crammed into sheds over shit pools, converted to money as quickly as possible on high-speed killing and “disassembly” lines.

But then, neither should chickens.

Maybe our ability to respect one another is defined by how well we respect anything alive? If we would not tolerate an ill-kept dog, we could not tolerate a homeless man? If would not accept profits that came at the cost of rivers, we could not steal a child from her mother’s arms? Perhaps if we cared enough to make each chicken’s death humane, we could not condemn to a lonely death even our grumpiest great uncle, or the guiltiest grandfather.

IT IS JULY 2020, and I’m about to turn 45. It’s been 20 years since the young artist-me decided to be a writer. It was a choice born of necessity — art supplies are expensive, writing paper is not.

I am an outsider by nature and history -- the child of survivors who locked doors and let no one in, I still reflexively defend myself against the unknowable worst which is always coming. Boundaries are my natural-born super-power, but I'm also cunning and wily, I can out-maneuver even myself, with resilience that comes from going without. I can take it, and so I do: I've made a life of pushing past the possible and testing my own boundaries. I got a GED, took a bunch of stupid risks, became a college professor — beat odds to make babies, turned a strange old house into home.

My weird little secret is that, while I hate this disease, I'm thriving spending more time at home. I'm not misanthropic or shy: I'm fascinated by other people. I'm even good at speaking in front of crowds, so long as it's about anything other than myself! But I am happiest when am doing my own thing. I want to make the art, not be the art. I want to create something you’ll look at, please don’t look at me.

I have trouble claiming any kind of group identity. There are flags I could fly if I wanted to, but it feels phony, even if it's true, because I don't feel connected to groups, not even ones I could be legally bound to, like "woman" or "white." I don’t even want to be tied to groups who have positively shaped my life, like "queer" or "working class" or "progressive.”

In 1984, a KGB defector named Bezmenov said that Americans “think they are living at the peacetime. False. United States is in a state of war: undeclared, total war against the basic principles and foundations of this system.” He said that, “fighting war on the battlefield is the most stupid and primitive way of fighting a war. The highest art of warfare is not to fight at all, but to subvert anything of value in your enemy’s country — anything: put white against black, old against young, wealth against poor and so on — doesn’t matter — as long as it disturbs society, as long as it cuts the moral fiber of a nation it’s good. And then you just take this country when everything is subverted, and the country is disoriented and confused, when it is demoralized and destabilized — then the crisis will come.”

The USA excels at “stupid and primitive” battlefield warfare, but we cannot understand the missile of demoralization even when it’s slow-dropping on our nose. We have been so divided, so many times over, that to fly any flag — even one that stands for good — is to feed the vicious cycle of destruction. To claim any role, demographic, or belief is to align yourself conveniently for someone else’s use — if not state actors seeking the dissolution of our society, then capitalist actors seeking its monetization. And if not these, then domestic political actors shorn of their morals long ago will jump on the division train for its bounty of votes.

What if the most important thing about us was that we’re Americans? That we’ve inherited hope and guilt in equal measure, that without the blameful world and all its violent history we would not exist? What if we survive only by the power of lies and betrayals, yet thrive only by the beauty of forgiveness and trust?

The governor of my state declared in June that she won’t impinge on citizens’ freedoms by declaring a mask mandate. Then in July she mandates all public schools hold classes in-person.

Chickens flap wildly when they fear they’re caught.

My mom would say: it’s not the heat, it’s the uncertainty.

We live in a big world with a lot of people. We will never all agree. Some people on this planet will never consider me human. I still want us to live in peace.

In Spite of Ourselves” ends up on my pandemic playlist. John Prine died after a fight with covid-19 in April. At the same time I add Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” — he lost a battle with covid-19 in March. Our family’s Uncle Chickie died — of kidney failure — after a bout of covid-19 in July.

IT IS AUGUST 2020, and I have been protecting my children. The chickens were for the children, and the second dog, and the tank full of GloFish(TM), and the two lizards named Frank and Lady Unicorny, and the three revampings of their landing “playroom,” and the several hundred dollars in Lego/Duplo purchases, and all the painting and sewing, and the climbing dome, and helping them figure out whose turn it is on the hammock swing draped across the middle.

The television is mostly for them. We watch “Odd Squad,” “True and the Rainbow Kingdom,” “Blaze and the Monster Machines” — never the news. But once every few weeks I show them a story about the virus, or vaccines, or the latest hurricane visiting their grandparents or sister or aunt, or the wildfires and how close they are to their uncle. I want them to know about the world, and I hope this is okay. Parenting is mostly making mistakes and hoping you didn’t screw up your kids for life. You want to protect your children, but you also have to help them become knowledgable and strong, because you won’t always be here.

The kids are watching “Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum” and so their dad who is also my husband and my best friend and my partner in life and my one true love, eat breakfast together in the next room, a rare moment together “alone.” Our school board is in court battling our governor, who wants kids back in buildings, stat. The school board is more cautious. We whisper to one another our fears: the kids will bring the virus home, and they might not even get sick, but we will, and we’ll be in the hospital, and who will care for them? Or we will die, and who will care for them? And if they grow up orphans, how will they live with the knowledge that they accidentally killed their parents by bringing home an invisible disease?

The kids run in the room, arms spread like airplanes — they tell us they are Amelia Earhart. The PBS Kids version doesn’t mention her disappearance and death, just how brave she was, how persistent in her dreams. I take them outside to feed the chickens.

Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” has been on my playlist from the beginning, a beloved song from childhood that reminds me of home. The birds’ message is a comforting lie: “don’t worry about a thing, because every little thing is gonna be alright.” Without this refrain of blatant dishonesty, I think I might die.

The chickens live in a coop outside, made by a local guy. It’s basic — unfinished wood bearing lumber-yard stamps, strong latches, room to roost — and cost us $500. The chickens have started revealing their sex, so now we know we have too many cocks, a problem generally dealt with by culling all but the one you want to keep as your rooster, to breed and protect your hens.

Six cocks compete to crow the loudest, and I explain this to the kids, and they want me to promise we will keep all the chickens forever and ever. The sky turns almost instantly black, the wind rises up and a lawn chair flies past my face. I herd the kids into our dirt cellar basement, where we crouch, huddled and terrified as the tornado sirens wail and hard-driven rainwater pushes into the house through the seams of our doors.

I am reminded of Katrina and Wilma, two hurricanes that hit us in Florida so close together we called them Katrilma. Afterwards I learn this isn’t a hurricane, this is a “derecho” — but it’s not that different. Fallen trees and blocked streets, about a million people without power, and the return of electricity predicted in days or weeks. Lots of businesses closed, desperately long drive-thru lines at the ones that are open. We were lucky: we kept our electricity and the damage to our house was limited to gutters and lawn clutter. Some of my chickens were soaked to the skin, but every one of them survived.

IT IS SEPTEMBER 2020. I’m looking at the photo of my grandfather’s parents’ 1927 wedding, which I have framed on my dining room wall. It’s the only “old family photo” I have. My uncle emailed it to me back in 2000, and I printed it and called him and asked him who everyone was, scrawling what he knew around their faces. Then I bought photo printing paper and printed it full sized, found a classy-looking frame from the craft store and I’ve kept it with me ever since. 

It’s a fascinating picture — the flapper-bobbed haircuts, the half-drunk smiles, the resemblances: the groom looks like my brother, one of his brothers like my uncle, a grumpy kid, maybe fifteen years old, looks like my cousin, or maybe me.

I look again. Every person in that photo survived the 1918 flu pandemic, in Philadelphia, one of the hardest hit cities. Their drunken smiles look less frivolous now, the fact that some expected relations are “missing” from the picture less benign.

They had a future — the last time I visited him before he died my grandfather pointed out to me that he “was there too”: his mother was pregnant at the wedding. He would go on to be the oldest of nine, and would father nine, and whatever else happened along the way — drinking, fighting, lying, cheating, abandoning, everything else — my existence and my kids’ existence depended on that chain of life.

His first wife, my grandmother, had extreme dementia when she died — she often didn’t know where she was or who was around her, and she would get scared. My uncle kept her happy by clowning around, keeping her in the moment — a disoriented but lighthearted eternal moment, like maybe she’d just smoked something a little too strong. When she was young she was an actress, a genius, and a risk-taker. When she was old, her eyes sparkled young: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, ain’t nobody here but us chickens, the jumping jive — she’d snap her fingers and slap her knee, “that’s what I’m talkin about!”

It’s time to add to my pandemic playlist: “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” — released at the end of 1946. The phrase might have originated in a racist joke implying a Black man doesn’t know chickens can’t talk. The Louis Jordan song takes an approach both literal and empathetic — the opposite of a racist joke:

“Tomorrow is a busy day, we got things to do, we got eggs to lay, we got ground to dig and worms to scratch, it takes of a lot of sitting getting chicks to hatch — Oh there ain’t nobody here but us chickens, there ain’t nobody here at all, so quiet yourself and stop that fuss, there ain’t nobody here but us! Kindly point that gun the other way and hobble hobble hobble off and hit the hay!”

Being literal and empathetic gives the song more power as a metaphor: we want to go about our lives and live in peace — we don’t need frightened men with guns stalking around imagining boogymen. They think they’re protecting something, but they just ruin everything and make us less safe.

My chickens need space to live, decent food, fresh water. They need to raise their wings to the warmth of the sun. Are we so different? Yet we torture food from the bodies of animals, we poison it out of the ground. We sacrifice fellow humans who pick the produce and cut the meat. We throw away young girls to rich men’s urges. We toss our children’s mental health to the unknowable winds of algorithms. We blame the dead black man, we blame the sick immigrant, we blame the raped young girl. Why does “development” mean bulldozing forests and letting humans die from the viruses of displaced horseshoe bats? Why are votes gained at the expense of family, decency, humanity, love?

Why do we keep making so many fucking guns?

Who’s running this farm?

IT IS OCTOBER 2020. There’s an election coming, a “drumbeat” that speeds and slows like a demolition: saws shriek, sledgehammers fall, chunks of old ceiling crash into dumpsters. This coming election wheezes and groans like shattered nerves and steel torqued apart.

Time moves differently now. Rather than a continuum, it’s a series of jumps. Every day, “a week from today” is unimaginable. Some weeks feel like months: Monday the president is 400 million in debt and grafting to pay it off; Wednesday the president tries to talk over an entire debate; Friday the president has covid-19.

I can’t tell my students I’m interested in politics, because they think that means I like shouting and “sick burns.” Instead I imagine a world where citizenship is acknowledged as work and compensated, along with caring for children and keeping a home.

Citizenship is “woman’s work” if ever I saw it: utterly necessary to keep us human, happy, and alive, but damn they make it hard on you. It’ll bleed you of all you’ve got, and forget getting paid, it’ll drain your bank account faster than it saps your energy, sanity, and resolve. Yet still we do it, for the same reason we still do all the thankless things that must be done: because they can never drain our love.

I’m tired of my Pandemic Playlist. I’m ready for it to be an artifact of a bygone crisis, but we’re headed into winter, and things are about to get worse. I wonder if in January, I’ll want to add “Long December,” just because it asks if, “maybe this year will be better than the last?”

Every day I take the next step forward, try not to think too far ahead. I breathe, gratefully. I remind myself: the planet, human life, decency – this is what matters, this is what’s at stake.

IT IS NOVEMBER 2020. We take the kids to the lake and walk the whole way around, petting every dog we meet. Everyone there is so happy. One man reaches his arms to the sun and proclaims, “Can you believe it? It’s November 8th! What a day!” We pick wildflowers, we bring home the biggest maple leaf we’ve ever seen.

At home, I pull out my ukulele and sing the song that’s running around my head: “Tiny Dog” by The Motion Sick — “nobody listens, nobody cares, nobody stalks you or blogs your affairs, you want more attention, begging for more, but nobody cries when you pack up and walk out the door.” I add it to the playlist.

The coronavirus numbers at my U have been low, like somehow we did it? But then an email drops: all classes are virtual and students are asked to go home early. Two days later they release the campus testing numbers — it happened fast, from zero new cases the week before to over 200 students positive or in quarantine. The number of people in our state who have ever tested positive for the virus triples in two weeks. Neighboring states already have field hospitals and freezer trucks. It feels like the worst is ahead, but I still have hope.

The garden I planted in spring grew well and fed us. I harvested everything but the brussels sprouts: they were supposed to be ready in December, but the chickens ate them down to the roots. I don’t mind. You should taste the eggs they lay. Come December, we will eat something else.