By Jill Kolongowski
Our baby is three months old, the pandemic is five months old. I’m watching shameful amounts of TV. TV while the baby nurses for an hour. TV while I try to sleep. TV at 3:00 a.m. when I’m feeding her. In the middle of the night, I watch entire seasons of shows—Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sex Education, Community, Arrested Development, Derry Girls—and snack on dry breakfast cereal scattered around the baby’s head on the nursing pillow. I wake with the baby every two hours and am sometimes so tired during the day when I’m awake I feel like I’m not within my body at all. My body performs tasks. I feed the baby: one side, the other; burp, rock, change the diaper, change her clothes; someone else does it and I watch, marveling at how the body moves without me.
As a writer I would love to say I’m using this pandemic time—this time we are so lucky to have, our jobs not “essential,” our home safe—to read, or journal every sweet flutter of my daughter’s eyelids, every new sound, every cliché beautiful hair on her beautiful head, every moment before it’s inevitably gone, but our television feels better than reading or journaling. My pandemic bingeing favors reality shows. A former version of reality seems easier to inhabit, for a moment, than this one. TV is our window, our theater, our therapist.
At first, I turn to Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Guy Fieri with his frosted tips has been shoving huge bites into his mouth since 2006. Guy Fieri himself seems like a caricature, but he doesn’t seem to give a shit about that. He is, by all accounts, a good dude. When the pandemic escalated, Fieri served over one thousand meals to first responders. Triple D has been airing for a staggering 31 seasons and 411 episodes, though there are only seasons 25–29 on Hulu. My husband and I have watched them all.
We can’t—won’t—go to restaurants anymore, and so we rely on Fierias a proxy. We are Fieri. We are also the people in the restaurant. We imagine it’s us sampling the homemade lasagna, or the toppling burger with a fried egg. We imagine it’s us sitting in a restaurant with red, sweaty faces, our baby in a highchair, saying, This place is so good. We get takeout, but it’s not the same. The TV flickers while the baby nurses. I make lists of things we’ll eat from a chef when this is all over. Not dry breakfast cereal, I tell my daughter, but steak, medium rare, diner eggs benedict, Korean BBQ, fresh rolled sushi, a burger with a fried egg.
I eat a lot, and a few meals stick out—homemade dumplings made by my sister, a new Indian restaurant’s takeout, cupcakes from a local bakery—but the rest feels like survival, not abundance (though of course, every moment of a full fridge is abundance). I eat in quick bites, and I don’t taste my food, really. On the screen Fieri samples thick French toast. A pat of butter melts and pools in the center of one slice.
Most of all, I eat to provide; my food is my daughter’s food. I worry constantly that she is not getting enough. My whole being seems to be caught up in my daughter, and while I don’t mind, my body wants a day with a little less hypervigilance, a little more abundance. I catch myself humming the TripleD theme song. I fall asleep on the couch, never long enough to dream of our someday dinners, but the dream of the dream lulls me to sleep. “This is dynamite, man,” says Fieri.
Next, we start watching Alone. On this show, ten wilderness survival experts are selected to attempt to survive alone in brutally rugged environments for as long as they can, each trying to outlast the other, for a half million dollar prize. The show drops the contestants off in autumn. The approach of winter is a clock, counting down toward the end when the last person is left. They try to survive the wet, overgrown forest in British Columbia, or sparse Patagonian or Mongolian wilderness, or the brutal cold in Canada’s northwest territory. The show will let them stay out in the wilderness for up to one year, though the longest anyone has lasted is one hundred days.
This is not the shticky survival of Survivor or Naked and Afraid; there’s no camera crew or producers or gamesmanship. Yes, there’s the money, but that hardly seems the point, most of the time. Some people say the money would change their family’s life, and of course, it’s true, but most of them want, more than anything else, to test themselves, to find the limits of their bodies.
The participants film themselves simply trying to survive day after monotonous day: reinforce the shelter, make nets and traps to catch food, fix the nets and traps when they inevitably fail, the continual maintenance of the fire, the sitting, watching, waiting. They have no idea how the other contestants are doing. Periodic medical checks are their only connection to the rest of the world. They carry a satellite telephone as their lifeline. When they are hurt or when they are done, they press a button and call the team. “I’m tapping out,” they say. Most of them cry.
We quickly become obsessed with this show. It is the exact opposite of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives , not abundance or celebration but hardship and deprivation. We don’t want to watch them suffer, exactly—yes, some schadenfreude as the snow falls on the screen, while I burrow into my couch with hot tea—but there’s more than that. As the season becomes more brutal, their bodies ravaged and unfamiliar, their emotions for the lonely camera lens get deeper, more desperate, more tangled. Sometimes they sob into the camera because things are just too hard, because they miss their families, because they are cold. Their bodies have needs and they cannot take it anymore.
Three months after giving birth, my body is both more familiar than I expected and still irrevocably different. The linea nigra still stretches from my ribs to my pubic bone. I do not recognize my new breasts at all. I look in the mirror expecting to see a change in my face—what does a mother look like?—but instead I look the same, just more tired. And yet I look in the mirror and think, Who are you? For myself, for the people on Alone, I’m glad to see someone else having a hard time. I’m rooting for us to make it through.
We really get hooked on the show when one of the contestants, starving for protein and calories, goes bow-hunting. He takes aim at a squirrel at the top of a pine tree, so small and camouflaged that even when the camera zooms in, we cannot see it. He takes aim and hits the squirrel right in the motherfucking eye. Survival for a little longer.
The pandemic ebbs, then surges again. The TV shivers on our faces in the dark as I fall into an exhausted sleep again. Everything starts to feel less like apocalypse and more like regular life. This complacency is its own kind of apocalypse. But if things got really bad, lack-of-groceries bad, I doubt my ability to care for my family. It feels so difficult already, this out-of-body care, even though we have it easy: food, shelter, help, two involved parents, a healthy daughter. But if I had to hunt for our dinner, I’d be helpless. I’d never be able to shoot a squirrel in the motherfucking eye, or even hit it at all. Watching someone else be so competent, so deliberately surviving, feels like a good omen—the possibility of knowing where to aim, of doing the right thing at the right time. As the country fumbles, I love to see someone aim at exactly what they need, and fire true.
Alone is also brutal and infuriating—infinitely watchable. Another woman makes it nearly to the end in one season and then comes back for a redemption season for previously eliminated contestants. She is one of the few who seems to enjoy herself the whole time, no matter how hungry or cold. While everyone else is fighting, she seems to sail along, floating through while everyone else thrashes. “This experience is a gift,” she says. This is the message for so many mothers—that this suffering is your job. Embrace the suffering with joy. But if the lesson is to embrace suffering with joy, I hate it. I do not want it.
On the new season, that same contestant, back for redemption, goes fishing in the afternoon golden hour. She catches a fish easily, but when she pulls her fishing line in, the fish is flopping so hard it throws itself off the hook. The hook jerks back and buries itself in the tender back of her hand and hooks itself around a tendon. She takes a day and a night trying to pull it out (first with her hand, then with a knife) and finally taps out, afraid of an infection hurting her hand permanently. The last time, she made it eighty-six days; this time, only a few. Both times feel right. You can be undone by something so simple.
On days when I cry because I’m exhausted but can’t sleep, can’t stop crying, even though my family and I are safe and healthy and have jobs and I really have no right to be crying at all; and then I try to rest but the baby wakes up after only thirty minutes, and yes, sometimes a thing so small can undo you, like a fingernail around a thread unraveling, a hook and a small fish.
We might also love this show most because of the way they win. The show sends the medical staff out for what the contestant assumes is a routine medical check. While the contestant talks to the camera, what they don’t see is that a loved one is sneaking up behind them—their wife, brother, daughter—to tell them they’ve won. The joy on their faces as they hear the footsteps behind them is every cliché: the sun coming out after the rain, after a long winter, after a dark day. They know they’ve made it. We watch them hug and realize how long it’s been since we hugged anyone outside our immediate family. We watch because we want this. We want to know we’re up for the fight, for that day when we can see the sun come up and say we made it.
The baby cries. The baby laughs. We watch TV; we watch the baby. I think, this experience is a gift. So much happens inside our heads now, whole alternate universes of what-if, technicolor daydreams of when this is over . . . staring into the white-blue holes of our phones and climbing out bleary-eyed like Rip Van Winkle, wondering how much time has passed. But watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and Alone has invited me back into my body. There is no tapout button. The lesson is not to embrace suffering with joy; the lesson is surviving their coexistence. The mind is, of course, part of the body, but the shows say, Don’t be afraid to feel the pain of your body recovering because that means you are recovering; notice the burn of hot tea on your tongue, of the good butter melting onto homemade bread; sit with the ache of exhaustion, the thing that happens after extreme strength, the shows say, Your body is capable of survival, of desire, of joy. You will make it.
Jill Kolongowski is a nonfiction writer and professor living in Northern California. She is the author of the collection of essays Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me (Ulysses Press, 2017), and other essays are published in the River Teeth, Waxwing, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. She is at work on a new essay collection about anxiety and disaster, and you can find her tweeting about both @jillkolongowski.