For those of us fortunate enough to quarantine, sheltering in place for the foreseeable future, time has begun to pass ever so strangely. The days oozing on by, unfurling on top of one another, without the clear distinctions of commutes, errands, routines and workplaces to orient us. Unable to dine out, or see friends, extended family or even those three people at work you actually like, we’re aching for alternative outlets.
Besieged by Instagram influencers, media newsletters and emails from work and our gym about how we can improve our minds, bodies and brands with all this government-mandated, isolated downtime, the question arises: Does anybody really want to?
By coincidence, as a freelance writer, I am an expert in an indoor lifestyle that is sufficiently ambitious yet relaxed and sustainable. And as someone with clinical depression, I’m familiar with finding myself in a dark place and then creating distractions to pull myself out. There are limits to what any one of us can do about the pandemic or economic collapse. But we can keep ourselves sane by taking our minds off it, if only for a few moments.
Here’s a no-frills, take-it-or-leave-it guide on how to distract yourself in a pandemic — without creating home gyms, reading tomes by New Yorker staff writers or doing juice cleanses. But please take it!
Become an expert. Now is the time for a deep dive into the topic of your choice. Since this all began, I have honed my expertise in multiple areas of study: plastic-surgery-focused reality television, the inner workings of The Walt Disney Company since 1984, mid-20th-century dystopian fiction and increasingly substantiated rumors about Ellen DeGeneres.
Learn everything you possibly can about whatever niche topic you truly desire. And whenever all of this is over, and everybody is understandably stuck in a loop of virus-related small talk (“Oh my god, that’s wild”; “So glad they’re feeling better!”) you’ll have something new, and mood-lifting, to tell your friends about.
Let yourself get into video games. After rejecting video games for a quarter-century, I became a big-time gamer last year, thanks to my boyfriend, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Like many others stuck at home, I’ve gotten deep into Animal Crossing: New Horizons — a game where you build a society on an island full of cute animals. It’s fun for the whole family (if you have kids) or a coterie of grown-up roommates. If you too have heard the hype, believe it: Teeter-tottering around an idyllic, underpopulated, animated island, you might momentarily forget about the gloom happening outside your windows.
Watch something truly twisted. In the early 2000s, before social media matured and when our cultural moral compass was far more loosey-goosey than it is today, there were a handful of reality television shows that revolved around extreme plastic surgery.
If you think the coronavirus is scary, allow me to introduce you to “The Swan,” a 2004 Fox series, where women who think they are ugly are given total makeovers, which includes getting plastic surgery on virtually every part of their bodies. Over the course of three months, they must recover from their surgery, do hours of daily workouts with a personal trainer, go on a restrictive diet and have weekly therapy sessions. The twist? No mirrors allowed. After three months, they have a bizarre ceremony where the contestants see their new selves in the mirror for the first time. Then the contestants must compete in “the most unusual beauty pageant,” to see who will be crowned the Swan.
Does consuming this deeply unethical reality television probably make me complicit in many bad isms on some level? Perhaps. But nobody should feel pressured to spend time catching up on all the critically acclaimed dramas that their cool friends and internet-famous critics are babbling about. Find something weird; find something niche; find something maybe even a little perverse but undeniably entertaining, and allow yourself to get into it.
Use the internet like it’s 2005. A couple of weeks before the coronavirus became a pandemic, I was on a social media hiatus, a big deal for someone like me who built her career by tweeting. Social media is a place where you can catch up with your friends, but it’s also a place where you absorb other people’s anxieties.
Not everybody can professionally afford to eschew it. But it you can for now, try. It doesn’t have to mean taking on a monkish internet abstinence: Instead of tapping on a phone app to update yourself on the latest, just type in the web address of your favorite outlet. (While you’re at it, consider subscribing!) Act like it’s 15 years ago, when things seemed bad in a simpler way. You’ll still stay on top of everything — but won’t run the risk of getting yourself in a tizzy over a viral thread arguing about how many people are going to die this summer.
Phone calls. All the cool kids are using Zoom now, but I’m an old soul. And isn’t the constant, direct eye contact of video chatting (which never happens in real life) kind of awkward? Call your mom, your bartender friend, your grandpa, your best frenemy. You’ll feel better.
Make a mood board. None of us is likely to write the next great American novel during quarantine. But creativity can still live on in a less intense way via collages. On the wall above my desk, I’ve been putting together a mood board of magazine clippings (e.g. the In Touch Weekly headline “‘Mean’ Ellen Exposed!”), a photo of my parents before they got divorced, scratch-off lottery tickets, a Capri cigarette, an outline of my personal presidential platform, Marvel-branded Ziploc bags, a printout of the “Mona Lisa” and a picture of Tom Cruise’s face on Chairman Mao’s body.
Clean one thing per day. Your household probably needs a deep clean or some heavy reorganization, and sadly, you no longer have an excuse to avoid doing either. Still, cleaning your place floor to ceiling all at once is overwhelming, and virtually impossible if you have children at home. Alternatively, choose one nook of your home to rejigger per day. Soon enough, your abode will be as good as new.
Write letters. The C.D.C. says it’s kosher to send letters, and everyone loves getting a genuine handwritten note. It’ll make you feel like a good member of whoever you call your community, or maybe like you’re back at sleep-away camp, a happier time in life when you were isolated from so many you love.
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