In the charming 2002 film About A Boy, Hugh Grant plays an indolent, preternaturally comfortable boy-man on the edge of middle age who doesn’t really do anything. Living happily off an inherited stream of royalties that continues to flow from a ludicrous Christmas novelty ditty his father wrote – Santa’s Super Sleigh – he avoids relationships, social entanglements, or meaningful personal interactions of any kind. His well-appointed home is his happy fortress of solitude, from which he ventures out sometimes to go to bars, get his hair styled, and so on, but always keeping it casual, and always with an eye to getting back to where he’s most at ease, all by himself plonked down in front of telly. This mode of being he dubs “island living”, a perfectly satisfactory existence that puts the lie to John Donne’s famous but manifestly wrong-headed poetic sentiment.
When I was fixing to retire from my law job, which I did quite young, at age 55 – who knew my carefully accumulated pile of investments would detonate in a financial melt-down caused by a frigging pandemic (OOOPS!) – my dear friend Susan warned me against the perils of what she might have called island living, if she’d been familiar with the movie. She knew me to be an introvert with an aversion to surprises, new people, crowds, loud places, public transit, small talk, doing new things, and making any sort of effort at all just to have a supposedly good time, and I think she intuited the supernatural extent to which I’m happy when immersed in what I refer to as my “rich inner life”, thinking, reading, learning, and just letting my mind drift wherever it will. My favourite song might be Penny Lane, but a more appropriate personal anthem would be Fixing A Hole; I’ve spent my whole life trying, often with little success, to block out the things that keep my mind from wandering. Retirement, Susan knew, would give me the opportunity to live in the manner to which I’m most naturally inclined.
This, she thought, would be a bad thing, maybe even disreputable. “You’ll be one of those people who just pads around in his pyjamas and sits at the computer doing nothing”, she warned me (though, as a staunch feminist, she might have said her pyjamas, I can’t recall). I gathered this was meant to be a frightening prospect, and not wishing to annoy her, I hemmed and hawed about keeping myself busy enough to avoid fossilizing in my swivel chair. Really, though, I didn’t see the problem. I was indeed going to be one of those pyjama people. That’s what I wanted.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not anti-social, exactly – society is wonderful, and I wouldn’t do a thing to disrupt its smooth functioning, or squelch the joy that most people derive from it. I’m just not keen to participate. I work better standing off to the side. There’s too much fuss, you see, and too many people committing self-centred misdemeanours of the sort I bend myself into pretzels to avoid perpetrating, which is probably why I find being out and about so exhausting. For me, Hell is a grocery store, the narrow aisles of which are blocked by the carts left idling in the middle while their stewards wander off to spend an unconscionable amount of time picking this or that shape of pasta. It’s standing in line at a bank machine while somebody monopolizes the terminal as if nobody else has any use for it, or realizes only at the moment she arrives at the front of the line that she’s going to need her bank card to use the thing, and where is that pesky card, it must be there somewhere in a coat pocket, or buried beneath the detritus in a bottomless purse. It’s struggling to squeeze yourself into a small space on an overcrowded subway car, trying to avoid too much physical contact with others, while great big slobs take up multiple seats or find it comfortable to stand there blocking the doors.
Most of all, Hell is the prospect of yourself getting in the way, and being one of those awful people who makes others’ lives unpleasant. It’s hard work, striving never to be a bother. You have to be thinking all the time, and ready, as I have done countless times, to step out of line and lose your place if it turns out that you’re going to be holding up the folks behind you. If the only way to get on the subway is to block the door, you don’t get on. If dealing with the guy behind the counter is going to involve a marathon of explanations and negotiations, you let everybody else go before you. If you take something off the shelf and then realize, five aisles over, that you don’t want it anymore, you take it back and put it right where you found it. If you don’t conceive of yourself as the centre of the Universe, or imagine that your time is more important than everybody else’s – if you’re the sort to cringe inwardly every time it turns out that your shopping cart is the one that drifted sideways and is now blocking the aisle (Sorry! Thought I had it under control!) – it can be difficult out there. It’s so much easier to forgo the experience.
Well, now that COVID-19 is trying to kill us, and we’re all obliged to practice social distancing, it seems that island living is the order of the day. I understand from the chatter on Twitter that this is a hardship for most, and that people are clogging up the internet Skyping, and holding meetings on something called Zoom, while some folk go out on their balconies and holler conversationally at their neighbours, or wave at each other from behind closed windows, anything to maintain some sort of human interaction. We’ve only been a couple of weeks in lockdown, with many more, stretching into months, probably, to look forward to, and this is freaking people out. The urge to congregate is mighty in our species, so I’m led to believe. We’re pack animals. We don’t do well on our own. At this rate just about everybody is going to go batshit stir-crazy before this is over.
Not me. I haven’t much noticed the difference, truth to tell.
I’ll give John Donne this much: no man is an island that isn’t connected to various supply chains and support systems. If the internet fails, or the power goes out, or the delivery people stop bringing groceries to my door, none of which, at this frightful point, is inconceivable, then I’ll be in trouble. Then I’ll miss my fellow humans. I may not be terribly social, but like everybody else I need society at large to keep chugging along, with everybody doing the things they do, in whatever groups are required to get the endless variety of vital jobs done. Life as we know it would be a disaster if everybody decided to be like me. I know it.
It will likewise be a disaster if this forced isolation in which everybody else is suffering doesn’t end before very long. I know that too. Meanwhile, though, I’m doing just fine, living as one of those oddball examples of random evolution that turns out to be perfectly adapted to the change in circumstances. When it’s all over, I’ll still be here in my pyjamas, wishing all of you well as you get back to bustling about, banging into each other like billiard balls and otherwise being normal.
Besides, wonderful Kathy is here on the island with me, and that makes all the difference.