At the end of every year since 2015, sometime around Christmas, I type up something I fondly call an "annual plan." Do not mistake this for the actions of a responsible business owner/adult. My annual plans consist of two pages of navel-gazing, punctuated at the end with any goals I might have for the new year. (Readers of a previous iteration of this newsletter will know, for instance, that my goals for 2018 were to break up with my then-boyfriend and read as many books as I could.) Then— and this is crucial to the process—I close the document and don't open it until around Christmas the following year, when I read through what I wrote the year before in a mood of sporting interest. Did Chelsea manage to achieve her goals this year? No? Not even close? Ah well—we'll get 'em next year.
You will notice that this flies in the face of all advice about effective goal-setting. Where are the small, achievable steps, the trackable metrics, the accountability—or really any sense that I have a hand in my own potential future success? I like to imagine a shinier, more accomplished me, but I think it's important nowadays that we separate truth from rampant falsehood. And the truth is that I am incredibly lazy. Substantively changing yourself for the better requires discipline and sheer force of will, an ability to set boundaries against the contingencies of life. These are abilities I do not have. But my haphazard approach to New Year's resolutions feels appropriate in our never-ending pandemic moment, which has derailed even the most disciplined plans on a truly staggering scale. At this point, even stasis feels miraculous—as long as you're not getting worse, you're doing great.
Don't get me wrong, though: I'm still concocting baroque, doomed schemes to improve myself. Four months ago, I began tracking how I spent my time—every minute of every day—with dogged precision. I can tell you, for instance, that I spent approximately 41 percent of the past eighteen weeks horizontal. Admittedly, I was asleep for most of that time. But I also spent 60 total hours lying in bed trying to fall asleep and failing, 105 hours staring at my phone in bed when trying to fall asleep and failing became too unbearable, and 14 hours lying in a dentist's chair, listening to "For the Longest Time" and "My Life" over the office speakers as my dentist filled my "very deep" cavities and drilled off the exteriors of two of my front teeth to fit them with ceramic facsimiles.
What was the point of all of this tracking? My plan at the outset was to dedicate 15 hours a week to reading for pleasure, a wildly ambitious goal that I have not once accomplished. Beyond that was a more general yearning to control and tame pandemic time, a physics-defying substance that is both superfluidic and highly viscous at the same time. Maybe if I just recorded what I was doing at all times, I thought, my life might feel like it was passing a little less quickly down the drain. I started time-tracking even as two of the calmest, most stable people I know had pandemic-induced breakdowns and began seeing therapists. (You know things are dire when I'm the emotional rock.) I didn't have a therapist, but I did have my time-tracking app, which is now the last thing I look at before I fall asleep and the first thing I look at when I wake up.
Then there was the fact that I was starting my last semester of grad school. Except this time around I watched my masked classmates convene in a room on the other side of the country, toting backpacks and wearing shoes and everything, while I sat at my laptop, braless, with a My Little Pony blanket draped on me just out of frame. I did the readings, dutifully woke up at 6:30 am every Thursday, dispatched my assignments with all the efficiency I could muster, watched helplessly as my blurry Zoom face filled with a radiant blush every time I spoke up in class. But it wasn't long before impatience crept in. How exactly was this all helping me? Could writing well even be taught? I was starting to think it couldn't. Instead, a bunch of old people were just making us read stuff they thought was good, and they were only occasionally right.
But my cynicism itself was instructive. It turns out that, like an overgrown but still rebellious teenager, I hate being told what to do, or—even more insidious—being made to think about something. Sometimes I just want to think about what I want to think about, you know? But when there’s schoolwork to be done, I can’t. What frustrates me is really myself: I'm a mortifyingly textbook people-pleaser, convinced that external demands are more important than my own wants and needs. For most of my life, I’ve found it very hard to discern between what I feel obligated to do and what I actually want to do. This is great if you want to do well in school, or fact-check long features on a punishingly tight deadline, or sustain dysfunctional relationships (see: aforementioned “then-boyfriend”). It's not so great if you harbor farfetched dreams of someday producing literature, which no one will ever ask you to do.
These past two months have felt like an extended cockblock: one anticlimax after another.* I have now completed all of the coursework for my program. Very soon, or whenever the NYU journalism school gets its act together, I will be an "M.A." I sense that this will not change my prospects in any way. I had a quiet Thanksgiving, a farcical "graduation ceremony," a quiet Christmas. But last Thursday, when I watched the little "2020" on the lower right hand corner of my laptop screen turn into "2021," I was surprised to find myself oddly moved. The fact that those of us alive right now still exist feels like a real accomplishment, an act of discipline and sheer force of will.
Shameless self-promotion/sponsored content/advertising section
I wrote about the history of face masks for the New York Times for Kids back in August, riled up internet commenters in October with this review of two books, neither of which I particularly liked, and grappled with capitalism in this book review!
📚 If you've made it this far in this email and also in 2021, I am extremely grateful. So I'd like to send you FREE BOOKS! For various reasons, I've received more than a hundred new and forthcoming books from publishers this year, and I would like to mail them to you because there's just no way I can read them all. Here's a list: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1jAMjuqIJT8CdPDDTWOC0r9VpSFWXvzGtEir9byDwan4/edit?usp=sharing 📚