At first, the mass retreat into self-isolation was almost welcomed, a much-needed pause in lives that have been stuck on fast-forward. You’d have a chance to do some reading, catch up on your favourite TV shows and Netflix series, engage in some self-reflection, and maybe get some exercise on the treadmill that’s been gathering dust in your rec room.
You decide to reread some literary classics that touch on isolation, starting with Great Expectations. When you get to the part where Pip visits reclusive spinster Miss Havisham you are starting to feel a bit peckish and when Charles Dickens describes the decaying remnants of her tragically uneaten wedding cake, you feel a deep ache inside. At first you think it’s the impact of Mr. Dickens’s touching prose, but dismiss the idea and decide that you’re suffering hunger pangs. You head to the fridge and extract a McCain Deep and Delicious chocolate cake and return to your reading. When you’ve finished the novel, you examine the empty foil container and see that unlike the wasteful Miss Havisham you have consumed the delicacy well before the suggested “Best By” date. This is your biggest takeaway from one of the great works of literature.
You move on to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, unaware that in a few weeks the lack of sunshine will give your skin the sickly pallor of literature’s greatest self-isolator, Boo Radley. You eat a Sara Lee cake to put yourself in a southern frame of mind. Walden Pond is next and you make an effort to embrace Thoreau’s theme of self-knowledge and self-reflection by contemplating and then devouring the Bridge Mixture that has been mocking you from the coffee table.
By the end of the third week, you’ve read every book in the house including the 1986 Farmer’s Almanac and a 1983 edition of 1984. You start to binge-watch an assortment of Netflix series, but after a while the characters intermingle and plots intertwine. You continue to eat, periodically pushing a button on the nearby treadmill to move the snack food closer. You see Sir David Attenborough approach a tiger. He has flowing bleach-blond hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, neck tattoos, and is wearing a sequined shirt open to the navel. His ears are pierced with rows of gold rings and at least a pound of jewellery hangs from his neck. When he speaks, his cultured British accent has been replaced with a thick southern drawl and he seems profanely obsessed with some woman named Carole Baskin. You finally realize that you fell asleep watching BBC Earth and woke up to The Tiger King and that the man you thought was Sir David is actually Joe Exotic. You breathe a sigh of relief.
As the days pass, it becomes harder to distinguish between the various shows, even between fact and fiction. In these bizarre times, they seem interchangeable. Is this the President’s daily press conference or an episode of VEEP? Was that Call the Midwife or Better Call Saul? You watch ‘The Shining’ and decide that Jack Nicholson’s behaviour is perfectly understandable under the circumstances. You watch ‘Cast Away’ and wish you had a nice ball like that to talk to.
In a rare moment of lucidity you realize that eating has become an integral component of all your activities and that the virus has become a ticket to an all-you-can-eat buffet. You’ve always considered yourself a pretty snappy dresser, but the pandemic has caused you to rethink your sartorial choices. Why get all dressed up if you’re only going to stay inside with your loved one and the cat, who by the way, gets out more often than you do? After all, your wife has seen you dressed up lots of times. Let her cherish those memories. Surely comfort comes first at high stress times like these.
You wear sweatpants and sweatshirts, the shameless sycophants of fashion. Regardless of your growing waistline, they not only defend you, but go out of their way to compliment you. They are your elasticized enablers, telling you just what you want to hear. They are Vice-President Pence to your President Trump. “Everything’s fine,” they say. “You’re doing a great job. Ignore the obvious.” They are always there when you need them, like those yes-men who insisted that the stark naked emperor’s clothes were very fine indeed.
After consuming shocking quantities of junk food the previous evening, you awaken next morning full of guilt and shame. With trepidation, you pull on your sweatpants and suddenly your guilt melts away like the Moon Mist ice cream with hot chocolate sauce on top that you had just before bedtime. The pants are very understanding and most accommodating. They fit comfortably around your ever-expanding waist and provide absolution for your eating spree, even the plate of brownies you scarfed down earlier in the evening. They shout, “Not guilty on all counts!”
Only when forced to leave the house for your weekly grocery shopping do the honest clothes get a chance to testify. When they do, you fear the verdict will change because unlike the sweats, your jeans are honest to a fault, refusing to stretch - or stretch the truth - even under intense pressure.
Hoping for the best, you ease the Levis up your legs and over your ample posterior, briefly fumbling for the drawstring before realizing that jeans don’t have those forgiving appendages. You stand on your tip toes, suck in your gut and try to fasten them, but they resist, saying, “Whoa, big fella!” You look down past the folds of fat and observe that the gap between the button and the buttonhole has widened alarmingly in seven days. It’s as if your pants have instituted their own social distancing policy. The continental drift has been accelerated by bowls of ice cream, mounds of chocolate-covered almonds, and party-sized bags of Ruffles chips. You continue to argue your case vigorously, jumping up and down and employing your most colourful vocabulary words, but the jean jury refuses to compromise its principles just to make you feel good about yourself. They have hard forensic evidence in the form of precise numerical sizes and they won’t give an inch. A 36 is a 36 and a 38 is a 38, unlike the X-rated - XL, XXL, XXXL - scrubs that have lulled you into a false sense of security.
You can’t contain yourself – you literally can’t contain yourself - and finally decide that the immutable laws of physics have won this round. You remove the uncompromising jeans and grab the sweatpants, which welcome you like an old friend. “Come on in, there’s lots of room,” they seem to be saying.
Poundage aside, the term ‘sweat’ pants is misleading when used in the context of self-isolation-wear. Very little perspiration passes through the pores while lounging in front of the TV bench-pressing remote control buttons. Once you are ensconced in your pandemic pants, trips to the kitchen count as cardio exercise and the return trips, balancing a dozen plastic bags of Bulk Barn’s calorie-charged goodies and a two-litre container of Coke, constitute your new weight training regimen.
Which leads to one final point. These are feel-good pants, not look-good pants. Mirrors should be avoided at all costs while wearing them. Thoreau was not talking about this kind of self-refection when he wrote about the joys of isolation. This looking glass does not show inner peace, only confirmation that your outside is obese. Your body has lowered its expectations and with a final full-body shrug, given up. One glance will tell you that your last remnant of self-respect has fled the building and that the sweatpants are nothing more or less than daytime pajamas for self-isolators – about to become self-loathers. Allowed to roam beyond its previously fortified borders, your belly has taken full advantage of the freedom, exploring places it has never been before.
Thankfully, any shame is short-lived. Five minutes after turning from the mirror in disgust, your sweatpants speak to you in soothing tones: “You look like you could use a snack, big fella.”
Written by Jim Prime ('69)