From the Prison Writing Project
“Flight 740, we regret to inform you that all flights leaving Gatwick airport have just been cancelled.” A collective groan exploded from the crowd like the mortarboards at the end of a graduation ceremony. For the previous three days, I had been watching the news of the eruption of an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland—Eyjafjallajökull—as its smoke an ash plum drifted towards England and Northern Europe. In 2010, I traveled with my wife and in-laws to England and Wales to visit my wife’s ailing grandmother. The end of our trip coincided neatly with the impending disaster, yet the airlines were still flying until the last minute. We had cleared security, checked our bags, and settled into our seats in coach. Our flight was set to depart at 10:45 a.m.; the last update we had seen from the UK’s equivalent of the FAA decreed that all flights would be cancelled at 11. We were cutting things close, but I thought we should be in the air and flying away from the disaster if we departed on time.
Speedwalking back down the jetway, my first thought was disaster mitigation. If thousands of flights were going to be cancelled indefinitely, presumably hundreds of thousands of travelers would be seeking hotel rooms they hadn’t anticipated needing. Step one: find a hotel room for the long haul.
We beat the rush and found a sprawling manor home in Horley which had been converted to a sprawling hotel. One day turned into two, a week, two weeks. For the next 14 days we lived a few miles from Gatwick, where we were in the landing approach for the airport and should constantly have heard the whine of engines overhead. Instead, we heard only the chirping of songbirds and the wind rustling branches. Although the extension of our trip was unanticipated—and unbudgeted—EU rules dictated that the costs of natural disasters were borne by the airlines; our stay and food were entirely free.
Yet, amid the beauty and the food and the environment, I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the TV most days. I had to know what was going on with our flights. When could we return home? When would we return to normalcy? When should we return to the airport for our boarding call? Was this volcano—with its Scrabble-grab-bag name of Ks and Js and Ls—done spewing ash and grounding our flights? I had fallen into the same trap I had post-9/11: anxiously staring at the crawl on some 24-hour news network hoping for any crumb to satisfy my hunger for new information. disaster had me clinging to the life preserver of data, information, and news—as scant and fragile as they were.
Times hadn’t changed that much in a decade. Coronavirus struck down the world in March of 2020, and I found myself sheltered in a prison. Okay, so times have changed a little: I’m not living in an elegant manor home converted into a hotel, but an institutional setting. Communal bathrooms with chipped porcelain sinks and toilets replaced a bathroom anointed in marble and soft lighting bigger than the two-man cells my friends live in. We have TVs though, and the news still doles out crumbs for my consumption. Rumors rampaged still—the compound would reopen for normal business June 6, 2020 (false); the kitchen bought nothing but bologna (false); the compound would reopen for normal business November 1, 2020 (false); so-and-so caught the coronavirus (true or false, depending on the so-and-so); the entire kitchen dormitory is quarantined (true); the compound would reopen for normal business February 1, 2021 (true).
In England, I eventually realized—probably at the prompting of my wife—that there was nothing I could do by staring at the TV and hoping for good news. “We should enjoy the opportunity we have. Keep right on living. Virgin Atlantic is paying for all of this. Let’s take advantage of the extra vacation,” she said. A wedding party came to the hotel around our fourth day there, consuming about 80% of the rooms. We watched their ceremony from our windows. Megyn was right, the rest of England—the non-traveling majority—had kept right on living.
As the traveling minority, she reasoned we should follow suit. So I rented a car from the terminal at Gatwick—an extraordinary experience, considering the terminal was completely abandoned and no other cars circled around the airport in its slumbering serpent of access rods and on/off ramps. It felt like the end of the world. Footsteps echoed through the cavernous departures terminal just like they would a decade later in the midst of the pandemic. Yet, the rental agencies were still open. They offered me a car with a manual transmission.
“No thanks, how about an automatic?” My previous experience was limited to driving a CJ-series Jeep from the early 80s while my best friend’s date grimaced in the passenger seat praying I didn’t destroy his clutch. For the rock-bottom price I had rented the car, they wouldn’t give me an automatic. I offered more money and they declined. So I learned to drive a manual—to the grind and stench of a burning clutch—at an apocalyptically empty airport.
We explored the countryside, visited Salisbury, Stonehenge, Bath, Brighton, Dover. We played tourist and saw Les Misérables off Piccadilly in downtown London, ate fish and chips beneath Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square, visited 221B Baker Street like the good literary nerds. We kept right on living.
During the first month of the COVID-19 lockdown, I had moments where I just wanted to stare at the TV and do nothing. Watch the pretty colors and flashing lights and simply … be. Just soak up The View, or local news, or Live with Kelly and Ryan, absorbing useless details about the mortality rate or infection rates here in Miami-Dade County or across the U.S. so I could regurgitate them like the reigning champ on Jeopardy. During the weeks following the presidential election in the fall of 2020, guessing which county would count how many absentee ballots for whom became my new addictive reality show. During the assault on the Capitol, MSNBC captured my attention like a bad hypnotist or a laser light show. I had the same revelation recently that I did post-9/11, post-eruption, and post-lockdown: staring at the TV in this was does literally nothing for me, brings me no joy, and doesn’t improve my life. Glazing over doesn’t make me a better man, or improve the lives of those around me. Basking in the glow of the TV and these shows, this data, and that speculation does nothing.
I’m no longer married. I don’t have the freedom to rent a car. I can’t take off and visit the sights of Southern England—much less the city of Miami which has become my Department of Corrections-enforced home. Now, rather than having memorized the latest vaccination rates, or formulated a response to U.S. foreign policy and withdrawal in the Middle East, or hyper-analyzed whatever horrific world event is gluing others to the TV, I have but a passing knowledge. I might succeed at the Jeopardy College Tournament.
Disaster mitigation now takes the form of simulated podcasts with my friends. Hours spent in the back of the dormitory, gathered in blue plastic chairs, laughing at each others’ bad jokes or criticisms o the Zack Snyder Cut. Or it takes the form of playing Settles or Catan for hours in the computer lab. Someday I’ll be able to trade my sheep for bricks—it’ll happen. Or it takes the form of creating Dungeons and Dragons maps, then coloring them—poorly—with contraband colored pencils for hours. Only to have my adventuring group bypass the area altogether. Or it takes the form of reading whatever novels, memoirs, or short story collections I can get my hands on. I need fuel for my brain.
Or writing non-fiction essays lamenting how I’m unable to shake my bad habits.
These things bring me joy and, even if they’re not the most productive activities in the world, I’m not reducing my mind to a puddle of viscous goo while staring at the TV nibbling the next tasty morsel of data. I don’t have a “job” with hours, or a paycheck, or even a nuclear family to maintain. I have me and the four hours I spend writing weekly letters or talking to my family.
So when the big stuff happens, I’ve been trying to live by what my ex-wife told me years ago. It works for the little stuff, too, I find.
I’m in my 40s, and when I look back at the years of my life I spent worrying about stuff—big or small—I can’t help by look back with a hint of regret. Regret that I hadn’t learned this lesson sooner. Regret that a mindset so simple took so long to develop properly. Regret that it took coming to a prison to really and truly grasp it. Regardless of those regrets, among the many others that assert themselves when my mind and hands are idle, I will abide by her suggestion and keep right on living.