Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Pandemic Dispatches: Reading Recommendations

Call it a lockdown, a quarantine, a shelter-in-place, a stay-at-home order...what it comes down to is that we're all going to be spending a lot more time at home for the foreseeable future. One of the things I like to do when I have a large chuck of time is to sit down with a good book. Now, I know that for many people, reading is a type of escape that works best when they avoid anything topical. If that's you, I regret that the bulk of this blog post is not for you. If, on the other hand, a novel about a global pandemic sounds like just the thing right now, I have a handful of suggestions.

THE STAND, by Stephen King
King is the master of horror, and what's more horrifying—especially right now—than a widespread and deadly disease? One of his best-known books, The Stand is about a plague that wipes out 99% of the world's population. The first half of the book details the world's descent from normalcy to cataclysm. It then moves onto the aftermath, in which survivors mystically divide into two new societies for an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, with all the toys of modern society (the 1990 version of it, at least) ripe for the picking.

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and as I think of all the things I want to say about it, I realize that it may merit a post of its own at some point, say after my next re-read. As it relates specifically to current events, King himself has tweeted that the coronavirus is nowhere near as serious as "Captain Trips" in The Stand, and the math bears that out (also, the plague in the novel was man-made, whereas this one is not).Still, some of the parallels are a little unnerving to someone who's read the book as many times as I have.

The miniseries they made of the book in 1994 is cheesy, but I hold a fondness for it just the same. If nothing else, the music is haunting, including the score itself, as well as "Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House and "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult, which I referenced yesterday. A new version is coming to CBS All Access, supposedly sometime this year. What timing! It'll be interesting to see if that happens, and how people react to it if so.

THE FIREMAN, by Joe Hill
The obligatory intro: Yes, Joe Hill is Stephen King's kid. He is possibly a better writer than his old man, which is high praise coming from me; I revere King's books, but Joe's prose tends to be just a little leaner, which appeals to me. The illness in this one isn't a virus but a spore that causes the infected to develop gold and black markings on their skin, known as Dragonscale. If that were all, it wouldn't be so bad, but it also has the unfortunate tendency to cause spontaneous combustion, particularly under high stress. The eponymous Fireman is an enigmatic character who has learned to control the Dragonscale and, as it turns out, sort of lean into it for his own purposes. That comes into play as the telltale markings make survivors easy targets for those among the non-infected that hate and fear them.

With books by father and son both about the apocalypse, it's no surprise that there are some parallels between The Stand and The Fireman. Instead of shying away, Hill has some fun with it instead.

It may be tough to get your hands on books right now, so allow me to mention that The Fireman is available through hoopla in both eBook and audiobook format. If your local library offers hoopla, you can check either format (or both!) out for free and read or listen on your phone, tablet, or computer.

LOCK IN and HEAD ON, by John Scalzi
Unlike the other books mentioned here, which detail to varying extents the events of the pandemics themselves, in Lock In, we dive right into the aftermath (although there is a novella, Unlocked, which goes into the history of the disease). The long and short of it is an illness called Haden's syndrome causes a small percentage of the population to be "locked into" their bodies, awake and aware but unable to respond or move in any way. A virtual world has been created for those locked in, as well as technology that allows them to transfer their minds into robotic "Threeps" or, in certain circumstances, human "Integrators" that give up control of their own bodies for a limited time. Lock In is a murder mystery in which the primary suspect is an Integrator and one of the investigators is a Haden. More sci-fi than the King and the Hill, and dealing with events following a pandemic rather than the pandemic itself, this might be your best bet if you're looking for escape.

WANDERERS, by Chuck Wendig
And if escape is what you're looking for, this one might be a tough read right now. It just came out last summer, and the echoes of today's reality are kind of eerie. It seems innocuous at its core: a small group of people start sleepwalking (for want of a better term) across the United States and can't be woken or stopped. Where it gets scary is everything that comes with it: an ineffective government response, social media spreading panic and conspiracy theories, fringe groups exploiting the situation to advance their own agendas, etc. This is a good book and I definitely recommend it, but if you feel like now isn't the time, you won't get any argument from me. Just remember to come back to it at some point later.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Pandemic Dispatches: Surreal World

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Strange days indeed.
-John Lennon, "Nobody Told Me"

In a normal timeline, I would have spent the past several days largely in front of a television for the first rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, worried about little besides upsets, buzzer beaters, and brackets. In fact, the last real day of normalcy for me was Sunday, March 8—Brandi and I went out for lunch and a beer, and as we sat at the bar, we talked about our plans to go to Cleveland the following Saturday to see the BGSU men's basketball team play in the MAC championship game, should they make it far, and about where we would go to watch the Reds play on Opening Day. Within a few days, the MAC tournament had been canceled, followed closely by the NCAA tournament and the postponement of baseball's opening day.

I have to qualify that as my last "real" day of normalcy, because...well, look. I've been working primarily from home since 2007, and Brandi and I have homebody tendencies. Our evenings (and not uncommonly our weekends) usually consist of ordering takeout and catching up on old episodes of Star Trek on Netflix. Practically speaking, my life hasn't changed all that much.

But in small, subtle ways it has. I was working on establishing a regular gym habit after work, but now the gym is closed for who knows how long (officially through April 5, but LOL). On Saturdays, I like to walk to the library and spend a few hours there. Now the libraries are closed; instead I've been walking to the library and immediately back to just spend a few hours in my home office instead. Hell, I can't even get a haircut, and I'm getting to the point where I could really use one (if this goes on for very long, my hair situation is going to get very interesting).

I'm lucky, though. Brandi and I both are. Our places of employment (including my "side hustle") are still operating, so we're still working our regular hours and earning our paychecks. Her company, at least the department she works in, is primarily work from home for everyone. I was my company's only full-time remote employee, but the departments who can have shifted my colleagues to working from home. I'm interested to see how that is received, both by my newly remote co-workers and by the company itself. It could be quite a culture shock, hopefully in a good way.

And still that's much that's surreal about this whole situation. Seeing our condo complex parking lot full of cars during the day, when it's normally empty (other than our cars), is one. I'm walking a lot now—with the gym closed, it's the only way to exercise, really—and seeing so many cars parked throughout our neighborhood, and hearing how quiet it is, is another. Rush hour traffic is one of the very few things I dislike about Worthington and Columbus in general, and man, right now it's nonexistent. Not that there's anywhere to go. And that's another thing—homebody aside, during my wanderings, I like to pop into the corner pub for a happy hour libation or two, and now it's dark, and empty, and closed. I'm very much looking forward to doing that again once this is all over, if I can—I fear the landscape may have changed by that time, especially where small businesses are concerned.

Also. I went to the grocery store one day last week to pick up a few essentials. It was so close to being a regular grocery run. So much of the store was at regular stock levels. But soup? Pasta? Bread? Milk? Empty, or at least extremely picked over. (The only Campbell's Soup flavor available, for example, was Spicy Chicken Quesadilla; if you wanted Progressive, you could have whatever you wanted.) I didn't even bother to look for toilet paper—Brandi is...not a hoarder, exactly, but...a toilet paper enthusiast even in normal times, so we're in good shape for a while in that department. I have to say, the toilet paper thing has me utterly baffled. This is not a virus that attacks the digestive system, so I'm not sure why that's the item no one can keep in stock. I'm hopeful that the panic will wear off and more or less normal availability will resume by the time we're in need, which, thankfully, is a week or two away.

I wrote earlier that Brandi and I are lucky in terms of our jobs continuing. We know plenty of bartenders, servers, and others whose jobs have shut down completely. That's kind of my worst nightmare, to be honest. Although both of our jobs are still in progress and appear to be stable for the time being, I've been preparing for the worst, in kind of a low-key way. We both received our annual bonuses shortly before this began; we had plans for that money, but instead I just socked it all away in savings, just in case either or both of our jobs are interrupted at some point. And we're lucky because we have that luxury, and because we're, for the most part, not living paycheck to paycheck. We've fought really hard to get to that point, and I really feel for people who aren't there, whose jobs took an abrupt and indefinite hiatus or may do so at any day, who don't know how they're going to pay their rent or their bills. I understand that evictions and utility shutoffs have been paused, more or less, but those bills are going to come due at some point, and that still doesn't help with things like groceries. So yes, I feel incredibly lucky to be in the position we're in.

Seasons don't fear the reaper.
Nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain.
We can be like they are.
- Blue Oyster Cult, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rocktober 31: Dokken

"Dream Warriors"

Here it is! Since I couldn't resist writing about Fastway's "Trick or Treat" earlier this month, here's my next choice for the perfect rock song for Halloween. Dokken's "Dream Warriors" was part of the soundtrack for Nightmare on Elm Street 3, which is obvious if you watch the video.

I thought this song and video were the absolute coolest. I loved all the Freddy movies, and while I didn't know Dokken at the time (this song was my introduction), the combination of horror and rock was irresistible. I thought the song was awesome, and I loved how the video didn't just use footage from the movie but actually had the band interact with it. Plus Don Dokken just had the perfect theatrical, sinister aspect that really kind of sold it. It's cheesy to look at it now, sure, but man, at the time? So good.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Rocktober 30: Europe

"The Final Countdown"

I originally had a different plan for which band I wanted to write about today, but after some further thought, I decided to bump them. Which left a spot open for a band I don't have a whole lot to say about, but who put out an iconic song what will forever be used for the closing moments (or days, in this case) of...well, sporting events in particular, I guess, but really for any event or project. And so I use it here, to mark the coming end of a month that has been filled with some great rock n' roll and brought back some really fun memories. There's one more post to come, but in the meantime....

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Rocktober 29: Poison

"Talk Dirty to Me"

If you asked me to name just one band from the hair metal era, without a doubt, ten times out of ten I'm going to say Poison. Not because they're the best or my favorite, but because they are the perfect example of what hair metal looked and sounded like. With rockers like this, "Nothin' But a Good Time," and "Unskinny Bop," plus ballads like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" and "Something to Believe In," these were the poster boys for '80s excess. And with all those (and way more) to pick from for this entry, I really wanted to go with "So Tell Me Why," a lesser-known hit from Swallow This Live, their two-disc live set that had a handful of new studio tracks as well. I didn't pick that one mostly because, on the brink of leaving the band, C.C. barely appeared in the video, and this one (still a great tune) is more representative.

When I was a kid, I had a blue button-down shirt that my Aunt Lou (Rachel's mom) painted on the back with some Poison artwork...not an album cover, but some other logo of theirs. I wonder if that's still floating around my parents' house somewhere. Probably not...I loved that thing, probably wore it ragged. Sometime when I'm there I'll have to see if I can find a photo, at least.

I'm not exactly sure what Poison's status as a band is right now. I feel like they get together for a tour every once in a while, but that's about it. I'd like to see them live. Bret Michaels played a solo show at Hobart Arena in Troy (my hometown) in September (with Firehouse as the opener), and I thought about going but didn't. I should have. I've heard it was a good show, and it would have been cool to see Firehouse again all these years later.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Rocktober 28: Whitesnake

"Still of the Night"

I always thought the bowed guitar part of this song was, like, the coolest thing. Of course, now I'm finding conflicting reports whether that part was actually played that way, or if it's a synthesizer, or maybe a traditional bowed instrument. Who knows? Not me! But it still sounds cool. Whitesnake is a band that was kind of an afterthought for me back in the day, but my appreciation has grown as time has gone on.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Rocktober 27: Def Leppard

"Pour Some Sugar on Me"

I mentioned Heart in my Vixen post as a band that had a hair metal phase but didn't really qualify as a hair band. Def Leppard falls into that category as well; the difference is that Def Leppard put out perhaps the quintessential album of the era. Hysteria was conceived as rock's answer to Michael Jackson's Thriller album, and it delivered, charting seven singles over the course of three years. Strippers will be dancing to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" until the end of time, and "Love Bites" is one of the biggest power ballads. So while Def Leppard is more than just a hair band, any discussion of hair metal is woefully incomplete without including them.

At the time, Def Leppard was my favorite band. When guitarist Steve Clark died in 1991, I was devastated. Looking back it actually seems a little silly how affected I was, but it was probably the first passing of a celebrity that I cared about, and probably my first real understanding that being involved in pop culture doesn't make someone eternal—these are still actual people with real lives and problems, and sometimes those problems include addiction and other health issues, and sometimes they don't recover from them.

I got to see them in concert once, in August of 1999. They played the Ohio State Fair, and my friend Jessica had recently gotten a job and moved to Columbus, so I came for a visit and the two of us went to the show. Seeing them at that point was almost kind of surreal, and the concert had a weird mix of age ranges. But they put on a good performance, and they played a nice mix of newer stuff (Euphoria had just come out) and their classic hits. I'd go see them again in a heartbeat.

I want to drop a quick note on Slang. I get the feeling their 1996 album is a little polarizing among fans because they moved away from hair metal and even the harder rock sound of their earlier albums and put together a rawer, sort of grunge-influenced album. Personally, I love it. I'm glad not all their albums sound like that, but it is definitely interesting. It's thoughtful and more introspective, and I think it kind of shook them up a little bit. They've gotten back to their classic sound, but everything they've done since has been a little bit different from what came before.