Riding the stay-home wave

What can ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Groundhog Day’ teach us about surviving the sameness of pandemic life?

6 minute read
Unflappable in the face of the same day: Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as Nyles and Sarah in Hulu’s ‘Palm Springs.’ (Image courtesy of Hulu.)
Unflappable in the face of the same day: Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as Nyles and Sarah in Hulu’s ‘Palm Springs.’ (Image courtesy of Hulu.)

December marks nine months since my employer sent me home for remote work, at first saying it would be just for two weeks, then for six weeks, before finally giving up the charade and admitting that this would likely be an indefinite state of affairs. My boss advised us to prepare as though we would be at home and indoors for a while, and I initially took pride in how well I had prepared for it—fridge and freezer stocked, several weeks’ worth of paper and medical supplies stored, travel canceled indefinitely.

Above and below

If I am honest, though, my personal state over this period might best be described as a sine wave, which is to say, not quite so pleasantly or constantly proud and self-secure. I have certainly had swaths of time, the above-zero days, where I have woken up energized day after day, marched confidently to the living room to raise my curtains and get the coffee going, started my music, and sat freshly full of ideas and intention at my desk, blazing through my day as though the only strange thing was being in my own apartment rather than at my desk at work.

But I have also experienced other stretches of time, the below-zero days, when the brightness of the sun seems not so much a welcome as an admonishment. When showering seems futile—because it kind of is with no one but me to know when I am offensively stank—when I despise the sound of the coffee grinder, and when my Zoom screen for the first meeting of the day is off, because the truth is that I’m still in my nightdress, teeth unbrushed, hair uncombed and looking like I took a flat-iron to the side of my head I sleep on.

Nyles and Phil

Will these day-to-day changes subside with more time? Maybe. I’m looking to Nyles, the unbothered protagonist in one of my favorite new movies this year. The premise of Hulu’s Palm Springs finds Nyles stuck in a time loop on November 9. When we first find him floating with his sunglasses on and beer in hand in the hotel pool on the morning of the wedding he attends every day, Nyles seems completely unflappable in the face of this fact.

You don't have to be on the top or bottom of the sine wave: the zero line is just fine. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
You don't have to be on the top or bottom of the sine wave: the zero line is just fine. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The lead character in Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, also eventually makes peace with where (or when) he is—in his case, February 2. In Groundhog Day, though, we get to watch how Phil arrives at this acceptance, and thus watch Phil vacillate through his cycles of glee and despair over his entrapment in his time loop—from joyriding drunkenly through town to driving off a cliff in despair and taking the groundhog with him—before he, like Nyles, gets to the place where he can make peace with the day that he must live over and over again.

For the characters in these films and for us in real life, two questions present themselves: what do we do with ourselves once we know we’re stuck, and then how do we get out of it? Nyles and Phil eventually arrive at answers like “Make the place you are stuck in your home” and “I don’t know, so this isn’t relevant.” Nyles learns to live serenely in every placid day at the wedding venue where he wakes up every morning; Phil decides to learn a bevy of skills, from playing the piano to medical training to how to fix a car tire with people still in the car.

Stopping the fight

When my own life started to feel like a pandemic time loop, I thought I was going to finally exercise more and eat better. And I tried to commit to it for the first couple weeks of my extended home stay—I made a point of going out for a daily walk while listening to podcasts, and studiously planned my meals so that I would have an abundance of greens and a minimum of between-meal snacks. What I actually started doing intently with my time, though, was writing, volunteering, and making my way through various action-movie franchises. Die Hard movies one through four; Mission Impossible (all six); Pierce Brosnan’s four turns as James Bond; and then Daniel Craig's four.

I didn’t keep assiduously to this—with writing I went through some periods where the words seemed to flow effortlessly out of me and rejection was foreign, and other times when I wondered if my unique last name was causing all my pitches and submissions to end up in editors’ spam. With volunteering I had weeks when I felt inspired and grateful for the extra work and added structure to my days, and others when I wondered why I’d taken it up if it was only going to stress me out more than I already was. And the action movies eventually got replaced, by movies on more esoteric themes—'90s teen classics, nostalgic family films, time loops.

You don't have to be on the top or bottom of the sine wave: the zero line is just fine. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
You don't have to be on the top or bottom of the sine wave: the zero line is just fine. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Making peace with the place you’re stuck, I came to realize, wasn’t about creating the perfect slate of activities that allowed me to be maximally happy and minimally anxious while hiding from the pandemic raging outside my walls. It was about not fighting it anymore.

Peace in this moment

Palm Springs’s Nyles recounts his iterative process toward this point to Sarah, the woman who unwittingly ends up stuck in the time loop with him—how many people he slept with, how many times he tried to kill himself, how quickly the novelty of reckless abandon wore off. For Phil in Groundhog Day, we actually see his efforts, and thus travel on the sine wave of his experience with him—his heights of joy at being able to act with no thought for consequences, his despair at the failures of all his exit efforts.

Nyles and Phil both eventually exit their time loops. I won’t spoil how. But in both cases, getting out wasn’t the point; it was insistently expressing the power of choice—agency—within the express confines of their looped life sequences. In an ongoing societal slowdown as a result of the pandemic—lockdown for some, quarantine for others, reduced range of permissible activities for all—we must locate and then express the power we hold within the choices we still do have.

I might no longer shower precisely every day, but not because there’s no point—because I don’t feel like it today, and because I won’t see anyone in person. I might keep my Zoom screen black and muted whenever I can, but because it’s easier for me to pay attention to what’s being said when I’m not focusing so hard on not doing anything stupid while on screen. I put my volunteer work on pause because I wanted to spend more time with my writing work; and I upped my writing work because that act of meaning-making matters now more than ever.

This is where peace in this moment lies—at the zero line of the sine wave function, not high, not low—just the even hum of a day that I know, whatever is happening outside my living-room window, belongs wholly to me.

Image description: A film still from Palm Springs shows woman and a man floating on inner-tubes in a pool, facing each other. They’re each holding a beer and there’s a stony desert landscape behind them.

Image description: A simple sine graph, which has a straight horizontal line representing zero and a single line that waves in an arc first above and then below.

Image description: A film still from Palm Springs shows actor Andy Samberg, wearing a colorful button-down shirt and yellow shorts, lying on bales of hay. He holds a beer and blows a white spray out of his mouth.

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