The suck line – choice or tatty towels?

D2. One of the things that has made coming back a little easier have been the many lovely positive messages from my colleagues. I wasn’t sure what to write about today yet, when someone sent me this:

“hope you are all settled in QT hotel. Is there a lot of restrictions? I hope you get good internet, good food, soft bed, enough towel, tile floor, AC, mini fridge, allowances to order in coffee/food and gentle nose swab”

I then rolled out of bed groggily (jet lag meant I’d been up from 4.30am to 2.30am) and went for a shower and contemplated my tatty towel. And had to think of another quote:

“A towel, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

And thinking back to the 100s of messages in my quarantine group, I wondered where exactly the suck-line lies? Personally I don’t think it’s towels. Of my colleague’s list I actually can only tick off two, maybe three items (the food is a bit hit and miss), and I must admit a small twinge of envy seeing another colleague’s quarantine digs photos, but I don’t feel so badly off. There are people who have no internet or aircon and dirty rooms and (in their view) inedible food.

It’s not even the worst accommodation I’ve stayed in. My husband and I, newly married, with an antenuptial contract that included a stereo and bicycle and steel desk as our assets going into the marriage had just moved to São Paulo, Brazil. We went off in one of the notorious Brazilian night buses to attend a wedding of a friend in Canoinhas. After the wedding we had one more night before returning, but since I’d not yet found a job, and my husband hadn’t had his first salary yet, we only had enough money for either dinner or a flea-bag hotel. We should have taken the dinner. We literally were up all night fighting off the fleas, hearing the other bugs gnawing at the bed posts and being startled by the strange noises on the corridor.

The other very memorable accommodation in terms of discomfort was the 10 day silent retreat I did in Thailand where I slept on a stone slab for 10 nights, and had surrendered all electronic media, all reading and writing materials and had a straw mat to and a single sheet to cover me. It poured with rain for 9 of the 10 days and I don’t think I had a dry item of clothing or anything by the end of it. But it was my choice to do this and I gained more than I had to (temporarily) give up.

And then again there are the more than double digits in moves we’ve done over the years. So I thought the suck line probably is choice rather than towels.

I’ve read just enough (or maybe too much) pop psychology and self-help and seen enough TED-talks to understand that (at least in Western culture) we have the illusion of choice and the illusion that it makes the difference. Knowing my readers, most of you will know about the tyranny of choice – basically (apparently) paraplegics and lottery winners return to baseline happiness a year after the event, and once we make a choice not much can induce us to change our minds.

So I think what galls most people about quarantine in China vs other places is not the fact of it but the lack of choice and control over where we land up – we like lotteries, but only when we choose to play.

I’ll end off with some pictures of yesterday’s meals. I looked at all 3, like last year, so that I could decide which to stick with – being semi-sedentary means that’s way too much food, so I’ll opt for one and cancel the rest, at the moment the winner seems to be lunch. There’s nothing wrong with the food – perhaps a little over-reliance on meat – I pity the vegetarians as even the vegetable bits have meat. But we have to remember that China very recently didn’t have the luxury of meat at every meal let alone every month, so I’m sure it makes most of my fellow-quarantine guest happy to see it in these quantities.

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