Quarantine Chronicles Day 12: An appreciation for isolation

A popular social media question of a few years ago, and one that continues to pop up, is a photo of a cabin in the woods, or a castle on a mountainside, or some other beautiful structure like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, in a bucolic or natural setting far from civilization, with the query: Would you live here for a year for one million dollars, with no TV, phone or internet?

And, of course, everyone not only says “Hell yes!” but most claim they’d do it for free.

Well, now’s your chance, after a fashion. You don’t get the million bucks (but you might get $1,200), you don’t get to live in a faraway castle, and whether you get internet, TV and phone is entirely up to you.

What you do get, however, is isolation, which is one of the attractive things about what the social-media question poses. And, back in the good old days when you trudged off to your workplace every day, it was a splendid daydream: Just to be allowed to sit alone in your house and reflect and recharge. Devour books like they were made of ham. Write a journal or, what the heck, write a book. Maybe get ambitious and tinker around in the kitchen or learn a new craft—for some reason, macrame always comes to mind, and then leaves in a hurry. If nothing else, get some chores done. That was your dream, and now it’s come true. And yet not everyone is feeling chipper about forced isolation.

Maybe it’s because they didn’t read the fine print on the offer to lie around the house in the woods alone with your fireplace and a pair of hounds sleeping at your feet. For instance, the offer to stay in the cabin for a year didn’t mention that you might not get paid (save for the matter of the million dollars, but that’s not until you’ve served your time in self- or state-imposed quarantine in a stand-up manner, and at any rate, remember, you swore you’d do it for free).

And nowhere did the social-media poser mention that your cabin or castle doesn’t come stocked with toilet paper, bread, butter, cheese, meat or even a stale half box of Chicken in a Biskit crackers or Hydrox cookies. That’s where they get you. Nobody ever reads the whole contract.

So, look, you’re maybe better off at home where you have at least a few of those things, and you still have what you’ve hankered for: some time away from work; bonus hours each day that just a couple of weeks ago you spent in infuriating traffic, a daily challenge made even more savage by your own or fellow traffickers’ road rage and terrorist driving habits. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve been cut off on Seventh Street by a moron in an oversized pickup truck with faded Obummer bumper stickers. That alone warrants my undying gratefulness and gratitude.

If Sartre was telling the truth in “No Exit” when he wrote that “Hell is other people,” then the loneliness of isolation is as close to heaven as many of us will ever get and, as much as I miss my co-workers, there are plenty of other people that I haven’t run into and I’m thankful for a break from some of them. You know who I’m talking about; everyone’s got their nemesis. And, anyway, there’s still FaceTime and other ways to connect with people if and when you want to. That hasn’t always been an option.

And we’re all changing a lot of our habits. We’re eating better. Maybe we used to drive lazily through a fast-food drive-in; now we’re getting take out, even with cocktails, from better restaurants or just doing our own cooking with whatever’s on hand.

With your incessant hand-washing, you’re cleaner. Your pets are stoked that you’re around all the time. You’re not squandering your money on useless junk, at least not at the frenzied pace you once did.

We’re saving the planet, or at least giving it a breather from the punishment we’ve been doling out for the last forever. This is what we should’ve been doing all along to make climate change less inevitable. But saving the planet and millions of other people’s lives wasn’t incentive enough. Now, it’s more immediately personal, and we’re all suddenly panicking while, paradoxically, behaving better. There’s a noticeably more congenial-behaving society emerging during this crisis.

Eventually, those who survive the pandemic will return to the old ways. We’ll hug and shake hands and marvel at the overwhelming offerings of our abundantly stocked grocery stores offering 32 different brands of toilet paper and giant display pyramids of eggs and meats, bottled water and hand-sanitizers which will no longer be the sort of thing you worry or care about.

And, after a few weeks of being back at work, your daydreaming will recur, as dreams often will, and you’ll once again wish you could return to splendid isolation, swearing next time you’ll cherish it more and spend your hours if not more productively, then with greater appreciation for the clean, uncluttered time.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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