Non-fiction by M.G. Belka
Scoring a Pandemic
I worry that I’ve been thinking too much about this whole “global pandemic” thing. It’s hard for it not to feel all-consuming, like it’s the only thing that’s happening or has ever happened. It’s already hard to remember how normal everything felt just a month ago. Twenty-two days, and I’m already worn out–I can’t even consider the fact that it hasn’t yet become as bad as everyone seems to think it’s going to get. We have not yet begun to suffer the worst of it–rent isn’t due for eight more days.
I’m so tired.
And yet, even with the exhausting whirlwind of news chatter, with reports of infections rising ever faster and virtually no good news to be found anywhere, there are still, against all odds, moments of beauty to be found in the quiet streets–signs of optimism and resilience in the face of this growing terror. A bit of humanity, in other words. Maybe just a reminder that people rarely go down without a fight.
I’m still looking for those, and I’m finding them in the background music of the world I walk through every day. I haven’t worn headphones outside in over a week, because I don’t want to miss a single sound, a single song, a single sentence. What better measure of people’s mood is there than hearing the music they play when times get tough or the songs they sing to help them through their fear? One doesn’t always need to speak to reveal how they’re feeling. Their favorite record can do that for them, if someone is willing to listen.
For example, the fact that R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of The World…” has once again made it onto the charts proves that most of us are capable of at least a little bit of dark humor. And that makes sense: it seems our country’s general response to this entire crisis is an extremely bleak and cynical example of black comedy. But of course, that’s just a bit of bitter irony; I don’t know a single person that would listen to that song to comfort themselves in a trying time. But still, there’s a lot of those songs floating around these days, ones played ironically as a defense against growing dread.
“Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
“Can’t Touch This.”
“The Only Good Fascist Is a Very Dead Fascist.”
That sort of thing–fun little jokes that were probably funnier about a month ago, all part of an unspoken-but-universally-agreed-upon soundtrack to a pandemic. Songs sung at the last karaoke night before the bars closed. Not our favorite songs (at least, not mine–I can’t stand The Police), but ones we can all more or less enjoy and have a nice laugh about for a couple of weeks. Songs that bind us together.
And, if I’m being honest, I can appreciate that some people are approaching this coming saga with a good attitude–one that I could never possibly mirror. Someone has to be a bit peppy. A few days ago, a fellow driving a big, shitty camper van decided to park on our street for a few days and just...hang out, I guess. On Friday afternoon, as I smoked outside, he emerged from his van with a lawn chair and set it up on the grass across from my house. Then, he queued up Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” turned the volume all the way up in his van, cracked open a beer, and sat in the sunshine, grinning widely as if nothing was wrong in the world.
It was absolutely perfect–the song, the sunshine, his smile, everything: a simple act of pleasure made so profound by the circumstances. It was so genuinely moving that I felt real sadness when he packed up and moved on the next morning because I never got a chance to meet him.
It’s probably best that I didn’t.
The man in the van helped me tune into the sounds around me–the snippets of music heard at the so-called end of the world. It’s never as quiet as you might think; these long days of isolation need to be filled with something, after all. And, if there’s one thing Eugene, Oregon is good at, it’s being musical. As the days grow quieter, even distant music becomes louder, more clear, more poignant. As I write this, I can hear a shimmering and mournful Spanish guitar ballad flowing from the apartment next door. Just before sunset yesterday, I heard some of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” playing from the house opposite the apartments. Then, when I walked to the store for groceries later that day, I heard a different house playing a different ELO song–the one where he asks if we want his love.
Beyond that, there are still a few buskers out on the streets, and I heard one shouting out a raspy take on “Eve of Destruction” that felt a little too staged. And, for some reason, I’ve heard Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” at least ten times in the last week. I am not immune to any of this; I’ve grown deeply emotional listening to the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” at least twice this week.
That’s all to say that the music we love is deeply personal, and especially the songs we turn to when things go south–way south. To hear how the world copes in real time, to hear what songs speak the words that we cannot is to spot a tell that reveals what faces don’t.
So, just listen for a moment.
Taste is irrelevant in matters of life or death. Though times are dark, these songs–at least, the ones I’m hearing–are ones of hope. The songs that acknowledge the tough times ahead, the songs that embrace the so-called meteor, and the songs that only we seem to understand–all of them shine a light on the ghosts of a better world. Even our irony is ironically hopeful: that R.E.M. song famously ends with the blissfully ignorant “And I feel fine.”
We’re not fine–not even close–but we’re going to keep carrying on this way.
M.G. Belka is a writer, editor, and journalist raised in the Carolinas and currently based in Oregon. He has a day job, too, but he doesn’t really like to talk about it. A friend once told him that he uses “writing as a vehicle for hope,” which is way better than anything he could come up with for himself. You can read more of his work at mgbelka.com or follow him on Twitter @mgbelka.