The Things That Got Us Through the Pandemic Year
In a tough 12 months, our contributors turned to what they could
We’re now awash in “the last thing I did before it all shut down” pandemic memories. One year ago today, Tom Hanks got the virus, the NBA shut down, and it all went to hell. Yes, yes, we remember. It shut down a year ago. But what came after?
The pandemic left us scrambling for new and familiar things, once it became clear that this was going to go on way past Tiger King. We all sought comfort where we could. In my case, I watched the Will Ferrell Eurovision movie once, but watched the songs from that movie many times, in particular the end-credits rendition of Jaja Ding Dong, which kept me happy when times were gray.
I know you’re supposed to say “I found solace in the words of Albert Camus” or something, but no, I watched Jaja Ding Dong over and over again. I read dozens of books and watched countless TV shows and movies. Also, I joined a bunch of online trivia leagues, and played Zoom trivia games with people from all over the world. And I worked on this website. That all got me through, and here we are. Thanks for playing.
I asked our contributors to tell me what got them through the pandemic. Their responses were as varied as mostly white Gen-X American human experience itself. What got you through these months? I bet it was Jaja Ding Dong. Don’t lie.
Nick Tangborn : Guy Fieri and Werner Herzog
In a year of social isolation, unbearable political noise, crushing anxiety and medical paranoia, the utter randomness of things that resonated with me is only concisely communicated in one thing – a list:
“Hard Life” by Sault
Guy Fieri’s Instagram feed, in its inane positivity and self aware goofiness;
The Big Goodbye–the most compelling storytelling on Hollywood in some time, chronicling the making of Chinatown and the unmaking of its architects Robert Towne, Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski;
Devolution by Max Brooks–a first person account of a Bigfoot attack and massacre by Mel Brooks’ son and author of World War Z;
James Tynion’s paranoid conspiracy metanarrative comic, The Department of Truth;
the for-some-reason perfectly appropriate casting of Bill Burr and Werner Herzog on The Mandalorian;
and this meme
Jamie Mason : Life On Mars
The thing that got me through the pandemic was watching re-runs of Life on Mars, a British sci-fi drama about a modern Manchester police detective who gets hit by a car and suddenly finds himself back in 1973. The Internet is replaced by rotary phones, allergy-sensitive offices with chainsmoking co-workers and ethical policing with cops who beat confessions out of suspects in the back room. No masks, no public health alerts, no Covid. Also, no constant pestering to quit smoking or prohibitions against drinking at lunch. A time when men were men and women wore stockings. Real life. Before everybody got all weak and virtual.
Ken Kurson : Guitar
I practiced guitar more in the pandemic year than I had in the combined ten years prior. And to my surprise, in my early 50s when I assumed my ability to improve was long behind me, I actually broke through a couple longstanding barriers, including the solo to Just What I Needed and the intro to Ain’t Talkin Bout Love. When I think of all the greats who’ve died in the recent past (including Ric Ocasek and Eddie Van Halen, though neither of Covid), the toll just seems incalculable. It’s been such a rough patch, but it’s also in its own way, kind of reassuring to be in something together with the whole world. It’s like the Olympics of shittiness. But the clouds are parting and I can’t wait for summer.
Rob Kutner : The Three Body Problem
The Three Body Problem books by Liu Cixin. In this year of enforced claustrophobia, sci-fi has generally been my escape, but this mind-blowing series (in my opinion the most paradigm-shifting SF since the “Foundation” books) took me way outside the all-too-narrow borders of our current existence. As an added bonus–in line with the pandemic–it depicts fresh new ways that humanity can be fucked that we hadn’t even thought of.
Matt Hanson : Books and movies about New Orleans
Just my luck to move to New Orleans a few months before the pandemic shuttered everything up. No longer able to explore and wander through this lovely, legendary city, instead I’ve done what I pretty much do all the time anyway and lived in a NOLA of the mind: books, movies, and music have sustained me. Rereading A Confederacy of Dunces, Why New Orleans Matters, watching Treme and Les Blank’s verite-style documentaries, and digging deeper into NOLA’s considerable musical heritage with Dave Bartholomew and James Booker taking center stage in the theatre of my mind. Frustratingly insubstantial experiences, but it’s better than those idiots trying to ape the magic of the crescent city by wandering around Bourbon Street maskless, pretending to have a good time, and duly delaying the chance for the rest of us to live that Big Easy life.
Lily Moayeri : Liam Gallagher
There were so many livestream shows and DJ sets and they all turned me off. Then Liam Gallagher did a livestream, “Down by the River Thames,” on a barge, floating on the river with London Town on either side, at twilight and it was perfect. No interactive frills, no VR representation, just plain old rock and roll with Liam sounding better than ever after the pandemic gave his vocal chords a much-needed rest The experience made me believe in the livestream concept, got me hyped in my living room and made me an even bigger fan of the younger Gallagher.
Rebecca Kurson : Puzzles
It’s been about a year since I hosted anyone for dinner, so now my dining room table is a puzzle paradise. I begin by sorting the edge pieces, then separate the other pieces by color or design. I do the puzzle itself on a flat sheet of oaktag – that way nothing distracts me from the pattern. After months of staring at irregularly-shaped pieces of paperboard, I will assert that the greatest puzzles come from the great Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick. To date I’ve put together 2,999 pieces of Fitzpatrick puzzles, because I lost one piece of his magnificent Absinthe bird. Still looking.
Ayun Halliday : Big Mouth
I decided to give Big Mouth a whirl after learning about it during WTF’s Maya Rudolph interview – Marc Maron really likes the way her Connie the Hormone Monster pronounces bubble bath. My absolute favorite scene – the one I show to skeptical friends and family members to try to hook them on the series too, is “I Love My Body“, a wonderfully inclusive disco anthem set in the women’s side of a Korean bathhouse. Everybody assumes theater and restaurants are the thing I miss most at this time…I certainly spent enough time in them prior to March 13, 2020. But if everything opened up for business as usual tomorrow, the first place I would head is King Spa in Palisades Park, NJ.
Laura Roberts : Animal Crossing
The cultural product that most defined my pandemic year was Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. It sounds ridiculous, because I’ve played similar games before, but none of them were quite so addictive. There’s something really soothing about a land made up of cute animals visiting your campsite to ask you for favors and treats, especially during the hellscape that was 2020, where everything felt either hopelessly pointless or aggressively evil. In the imaginary world of Animal Crossing, all you have to do is collect fruit, go fishing, and catch bugs in a butterfly net. It’s a game that encourages sharing and community, rather than self-centered survival, and in a year where the world felt more like a zombie apocalypse than ever, I needed that peaceful escape to a place where the most obnoxious thing anyone ever did was call me “brosephine.”
Daniel Cohen : AEW
Spring is the best time of the year for sports. Baseball is starting. Basketball, soccer, and hockey are winding down. Last year there was none of that – only Ukrainian table tennis and, mercifully, wrestling. “AEW Dynamite” was a real highlight of the pandemic year, presenting, under trying circumstances, some of the best pro wrestling ever seen on American TV. They aren’t afraid to be silly, either; there’s a place in AEW for a wrestling dinosaur with a master’s degree, an evil eight-year-old cult leader, and the occasional rendition of “Me and My Shadow.” It’s cliched to say that wrestling functions as escapism, but for two hours every Wednesday on TNT, you could forget that it was 2020.
Chris Farnsworth : the Patrick Melrose novels
I did not expect an unrepentant heroin addict from the British upper class to get me through COVID. But I spent a lot of time awake at 3 a.m. this past year, and that’s when I found the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — a chronicle of the people in the life of a boy born into wealth and privilege. Patrick is horrifically abused by his mad father and abandoned by his neglectful mother, and yet somehow manages to find a measure of peace and stability when he finally puts down the needle. The books are beautifully written, painful, hilarious and—surprisingly—hopeful.
Scott Gold : Dungeons and Dragons
The one thing that really saved my bacon in the pandemic year, or at the very least the last scraps of sanity wafting around the back of my cranium, was Dungeons & Dragons. Yup, good ole D&D. During the week I was your typical exhausted new father flecked with milk vomit, but, because the advent of Roll20 and Zoom, every Thursday night I got to be Thorak the Defender, half-orc barbarian, wielder of the cursed Berserker Axe, searching with my party through the dark and treacherous land of Omu for the mythical Soul Monger. And during the week, between dirty diapers and endless re-readings of “Dragons Love Tacos,” I’d pore over the Player’s Handbook and other game lit for ways to flesh out Thorak’s backstory and finagle his stats, making him even more deadly to any garillon zombie, lich sorceress or gelatinous cube that might cross his path. Sure, nothing beats rolling dice at a table with friends for hours over junk food, but to paraphrase Ian Malcom, “Nerds, uh…uh…find a way.”
Kenji Fujishima : My Blu-Ray Player
Instead of highlighting a particular cultural product, I’ll give a shout-out to a piece of hardware that allowed to take in a whole slew of cultural products that helped me get through this pandemic year: my LG BP175 region-free Blu-ray player. Movies in general helped keep me sane while sequestered at home, and this new device, which I purchased about a year ago in the earliest days of quarantine, helped me expand my cinematic boundaries, while also enabling my previously long-dormant physical-media-collecting habits—even if I couldn’t physically travel.
Sharyn Vane : Ted Lasso
I dismissed Ted Lasso even as critics were raving about it, because I mistakenly thought it was about soccer shenanigans. A few months ago, in a desperate dry spell between shows, I tuned in and realized my mistake. Thirty minutes of Ted’s relentless mustachioed optimism each night did wonders for my outlook, and I still think about his darts takedown line: “Be curious, not judgmental.” As Coach Lasso would say: “Believe!”
Kathy O’Neill : Rotisserie Chicken
Costco, Albertson’s, Safeway, Food Lion, Meijer, Publix, Kroger, Walmart. They all have it, and we all want it. Rotisserie chicken. It’s always fresh and it’s always waiting, incubating under a heat lamp; a shining beacon of hope in this uncertain world.
Costco’s rotisserie chicken may be the gold standard and boasts its own Facebook page.
During the pandemic, I took its xanthan gum, modified food starch, potato dextrin, dextrose and shred it into small pieces. Added jars of korma or butter chicken sauce, stirred in some onions, downed it with one of those grocery store six-packs you can create from 6 different beers, and pretended the world was not on fire.
Jake Harris : Stop Making Sense
I miss going to concerts. That’s why I’ve watched Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert documentary “Stop Making Sense” multiple times during this pandemic. It started off with a late-night watch on the Criterion Channel. That turned into two or three watches before it left that streaming service, and then I bought the album. It’s infectious and joyful and hit me at just the right time.
Lani Gonzalez : Survivor
2020 was the year I started watching Survivor. (Too on-the-nose?) After two decades of ignoring this massively popular show, in the past 12 months I’ve made it a nightly ritual. I’ve listened to fan podcasts and spent far too much time doom-scrolling through the comments (!) for episode write-ups from 12 years ago. I even subscribed to Parvati’s newsletter. Unfortunately, American Survivor only has 41 seasons, so with months of uncertainty ahead, I’m bookmarking the YouTube channels for versions of Survivor from Australia, New Zealand, The UK, and South Africa.
Gillian Gaar : Magnum P.I.
Rediscovering Magnum, P.I. episodes on the Charge! network. I can’t get to Hawaii in person, but I can experience it vicariously through the show: Thomas, Rick, and T.C. getting in and out of one scrape after another, Higgins endlessly fussing over something, “the lads,” and a look at a more laid-back, old-school, 1980s Hawaii. Favorite quote: “You’re probably wondering about the goat.”
Frank Wu : YouTube Cooking Shows
YouTube cooking shows such as the Epicurious 4 levels challenge and Pro v. Amateur, America’s Test Kitchen, and J. Kenji Alt-Lopez. I was in the first cohort of school kids who had gender neutral assignments to cooking and shop—boys had to take cooking with girls, and girls had to take shop with boys—and I received a C for my inability to follow recipes, pouring salt instead of sugar into a cake, for example.
Yet during the pandemic, with restaurants closed and even takeout risky with the unmasked chef sweating at the grill behind the counter and a crowd of patrons milling about for their orders, it seemed best to take up the challenge. As an enthusiastic incompetent in the kitchen, I turned to the many how-to videos, learning about ingredients, tools, and techniques that I no doubt had benefited from in dishes I could not imagine trying to recreate. What I make is good enough for me at least, and this hobby will continue beyond the pandemic.
Trevor Seigler : YouTube in general
Almost as soon as I got my new Chromebook in March and started using the local library’s free Wi-Fi in the parking lot, I found myself spending a lot of time on YouTube. Sometimes I engaged in high-minded educational endeavors, meant to expand my mind. But mostly, I looked up Bad Lip Reading videos like “Seagulls (Stop It Now)” and other Star Wars-related music videos (my personal favorite: “It’s Not a Moon”). I also started making time for YouTubers like History Buffs (all about cinematic depictions of historical events or persons), JoBlo Video and their ongoing deep dive into the James Bond cinematic universe, and Jenny Nicholson’s idiosyncratic channel. I still cringe a little when someone uses the phrase “famous YouTuber” because my middle-aged mind can’t comprehend such a notion, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that many YouTubers, famous or not, helped get me through this pandemic.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell : The Good Place
I’ve binged so much Nordic Noir that I should be fluent in Finnish by now, but this saga of four flawed people trapped for all eternity in a sunshiney paradise that’s not quite what it seems resonated with my family of four during L.A.’s endless lockdowns, reminding us how quickly even the blessings of quarantine (togetherness! hobbies! self-improvement!) can curdle. The show meandered as it increasingly struggled to inject novelty into its Groundhog Day premise, but the cathartic last episode—when the redeemed characters finally, willingly step beyond the veil—left me a blubbering mess, echoing all the goodbyes we’ve said this year.
Neal Pollack : Jaja Ding Dong
Play Jaja Ding Dong. PLAY IT!