Unsolitary Confinement and Other Considerations in the Age of Coronavirus

By Les Firestein   |   May 14, 2020
Illustration by Ron Hauge, whose work has appeared in Time, The New York Times, and Entertainment Weekly. As a writer, his credits include The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Saturday Night Live.

You’ve gotta give it up for humans. With the exception of the Dark Ages, we’re always trying to figure out better ways to nest and adapt those nests to what life throws at us. But how we shelter has never had to absorb so much change… or so much stuff… so quickly as now. Our homes are bulging with Costco stockpiles and bursting with humanity and desperately trying to morph fast enough in response to the coronavirus pandemic. How we live in our homes and what we’re stuffing into them says much about how our species adapts… and how it doesn’t.

When it comes to what’s driving the rearrangement of our shelter, I feel like it’s not so much the fear of contracting COVID as it is the fear of unsolitary confinement. When we tied the knot we all assumed that the knot would not be glued in place and the bonds of marriage were metaphorical rather than actual. All our vows said stuff about “sickness and in health” but no one’s marriage vows said squat about togetherness 24/7/365. Not to mention the two of you never leaving the house. Like ever.

And so it was that the internet lit up last week when the actress Jada Pinkett Smith said that lockdown has taught her she “doesn’t really know (her husband) Will Smith at all” and that right now, despite 20 years of marriage, they’re “just trying to build a friendship.”

Within the same interview (actually it was kind of the interview version of a selfie) Ms Pinkett Smith referred to the popular meme “You can’t spell divorce without COVID.” Turns out long-term marrieds like the Smiths are finding it hard to cohabitate, even in 20,000 square feet, so folks are trying to modify their homes not just to save their marriages, but provide separation between Tik-Toks and Zoomers, Twitterati and Boomers. I guess the one place we DO want social distancing is inside the home. Don’t look for Jada Pinkett in a “tiny home” anytime soon.

For me and my wife it’s actually not that bad. Not because we’ve figured out the keys to a successful marriage. It’s just that as two writers, sometimes with the added burden of co-working, we’re used to seeing too much of each other and have pleasantly moved on to mutual Stockholm syndrome. The big difference for us in the pandemic is not that we now spend all our time together, but that you do too. The world has normalized our unsolitary confinement.

Similarly, because I’m a writer, I don’t relate to people’s claims of quarantine boredom. Because writers lead such internal, solitary lives, I’m a black belt when it comes to filling the hours with meaningless, self-improvised diversions. Like thanks to “live tracking updates,” I can order anything online and watch its progress from anywhere in the world… to my front door. Woo-hoo! It’s like a lame Netflix series crafted just for me. Thanks, Jeff Bezos!

And while I never understood the desire to live track our parcels like they’re returning POWs or Lindbergh returning from Paris, now that we’re sheltering in place I’m grateful for the added entertainment. Sometimes I’ll order multiples of the same item from different vendors and “race” them. Or to mix it up, one can order multiples of the same thing with different shipping methods and race the delivery services. Spoiler alert: USPS is rarely in the winner’s circle.

Another fun diversion is to study the “Movers and Shakers” list on Amazon, i.e. what’s trending. As a student of human behavior, and as one who’s always trying to stay a step ahead in the stocking of the COVID bomb shelter I call home, I’m always interested in what’s selling in the pandemic… and, more importantly, I love to posit what these choices say about our species.

The eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow famously created a “hierarchy of needs” pyramid that illustrates the fundamental thirsts humans are trying to quell, along with the urgency of each. At the bottom of the pyramid are Man’s most un-optional needs: air, water, and sleep. Then as one climbs the pyramid, things become more desired but less needed. So halfway up the pyramid are things like “human connection,” a “sense of belonging,” wifi signal, and love. Then at the very top of the pyramid is “transcendence,” which is akin to Buddhism’s Nirvana.

UnNatural Selection

In the COVID crisis, however, it seems apparent that joining the base of Maslow’s pyramid, right alongside Man’s need for oxygen and shelter, is Man’s (and even moreso, Woman’s) unquench-able thirst for toilet paper and paper towels. The thing I have yet to see discussed, including by myself in an earlier piece on bidets, is why toilet paper of all things has struck such a nerve. Why not hoard something endlessly useful – like gaffer’s tape? And why, nearly two months into quarantine, are TP and paper towels still in such scarce supply?

Here’s the weird thing I found out. Our TP obsession… or at least our fixation with the hygiene of our nethers, not only makes complete sense… it is in fact a key ingredient of Humankind’s evolutionary success.

Turns out, we may be the only species with fatty buttocks protecting a concealed aperture for waste. The design genius of our entire backside is this: buttocks have the ability to store fat (aka fuel) which allowed hominids to venture further out on to the savanna, and last longer and forage further whilst hunting. But you can’t just have offense without defense. What the recessed anus provided was an ability to conceal the scent of human so that we would not and could not be tracked by better carnivores, like jaguars, wolves, and saber-toothed tigers. Which is good to keep in mind the next time you call someone an A-hole. The A-hole being a critical lynchpin of humanity. From a design perspective, “A-hole” is kind of a compliment.

Our desire to clean ourselves and be scentless – though there are better ways to do it (see my earlier bidet piece) comes from somewhere deep in our amphibious/reptilian brains and is likely related to not just our success but dominance as a species. It’s good to know we’re not just lemmings; our insane TP hoarding is based on something of great evolutionary value.

Paper towels, on the other hand, not so much. Paper towels have only existed for a little more than 100 years, and they’re hardly helping us hide from apex predators. Before paper towels, Civilization got along just fine with cloth towels, mops, sponges, and rags. So what’s the drive behind stockpiling paper towels?

My theory is it’s biblical, i.e. we’re living in a time of plague so, as with the original plagues, people are naturally expecting a flood. Okay, so even if today is the Book of Genesis redux, Super absorbent Bounty is good but it’s not THAT good. It’s not going to absorb melting ice caps or rising sea levels.

Other quarantine big sellers Maslow might find interesting are guns, alcohol, beard trimmers, and hair dye. All of which I guess make complete sense. Except if your hair is only being seen on Zoom, shouldn’t there be just a nearby Zoom icon or app with which to color it?

Home gym and wellness equipment are other big sellers in the age of home quarantine. The wellness stuff I can’t get behind because isn’t the presence of your entire family pretty much the antidote to mindfulness and meditation? Last I checked there is no “ohm” in home.

Co-rona, Co-vid, and Co-habitation

Three months ago, people used to say they wanted less time at work and more time with family. The time it took to cure people of that notion was not even six weeks of quarantine. So if we’re updating the Maslow pyramid, clearly another strong desire people have, along with “connection,” is their almost equal desire for disconnection, also known as solitude.

This desire for privacy, and hence private rooms, has been an interesting journey in architecture.

In agrarian, pre-Victorian society, there was very little separation between family members inside the home. This was practical and had to do with the naturally protective value of huddling together as well as the inherent efficiencies of warming air and water, with only crude plumbing, and without central air or heat or furnaces.

As the western world became less agrarian, Victorian culture fostered the birth of the “closed” living plan, where one travelled through halls rather than someone else’s room to reach a destination. Victorian homes were generally dark with so many walls partitioning the natural light – but the overriding Victorian desire was for everyone and even every activity to have its own room (like the fainting room, parlor room, and the larder). This highly segmented style of architecture struck a nerve and lasted about 65 years. Many people. Small rooms. Many doors. Kind of makes you jealous right about now, right? It shouldn’t surprise you the “door slamming farce” originated during this era. Because every Victorian home seems to have about 100 doors.

When the Great Depression came, homes once again got flooded with people, not just the nuclear family but extended family and sometimes boarders as well. Of necessity, privacy took a back seat to the economies of scale. In the span of 100 years the home had gone from a few large, pragmatic rooms with family huddled. To many rooms but with much separation. Then to many rooms, dark, and crammed with people.

The economy didn’t get going again until the end of WW2 which gave birth to the open floor plan, which also got a boost from new building materials previously unavailable to the consumer, i.e. long steel beams (previously war rationed) which allowed for grandiose ceiling spans (without the need for multiple load bearing walls) and helped give birth to the “open” floor plan, which exploded with Philip Johnson’s alarming (at the time) Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949, which made the cover of Life Magazine. As a light and airy relief from the doom and gloom of World War 2, the open floor plan allowed you to visually take in most of your empire at once, and see everyone, and all your cool stuff, at the same time. Little did people know when the open floor plan took off that it’s a little like not having eyelids.

Since then, and till now, the open floor plan architectural style has enjoyed an unprecedented 70-year run, because there was prestige in creating wide open interior spaces, and just as important, prestige in showing you could keep tidy these wide open expanses. It implied staff. And if not a staff, then at least a very devoted and obedient house spouse. Yes, with the open floor plan, lucky Mom got to prep meals and watch the kids – two jobs for the price of none!

The open floor plan is like models appearing on Instagram with no makeup. Presumably to show modesty, but with an implied boast “I naturally have no flaws whatsoever.” Of course the greatest implied boast of the open floor plan is not so much the status symbol of a house that is always clean. It’s a family that you always want to see. Can you imagine?

Unfortunately in the Age of the Coronavirus, the Family That Is Always There, which sounds like the title of a ‘50s horror movie or a Tale From the Crypt, has overstayed its welcome. Turns out we’d all, if we had the money, like to live like Mr. and Mrs. President and their son, who each occupied their own floor in Trump Tower. Come on, you’ve fantasized about it.

The major trends of our world cannot help but manifest in our habitats. We always try to adapt our nests to prevailing conditions, be they natural, cultural, and sometimes imagined (cold war bomb shelters, for example). Today as we try to adapt our interiors to the horrific condition that is exterior, it’s good to keep in mind “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

I’m reminded of a story that is particularly apt, told to me by the writer Rob Ulin. Rob was buying a house in Santa Monica that had just come on the market under bizarre circumstances. The previous owner was a legit survivalist who had built himself a full on survivalist’s bunker. The problem was when the survivalist went to check the levels in his propone tanks, he blew himself up in the process. Thus the bomb shelter did in fact serve its intended purpose. Only it protected the environment from the survivalist rather than the other way around.

Which just goes to show. Man plans, and God says “Ha.” Except when she says “Kaboom.”


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