The Mickey Mouse club can't even handle me right now, 7/26/21

Over shepherd's pie at the Rose & Crown, the ersatz English pub at Epcot, it is impressed on me that every single body of water in Florida might contain an alligator in it at any time. "Alligators are ambush predators," one of the Floridians I'm with informs me; a rampaging gator even killed a kid at Disney World a few years ago. I learn that I should keep my distance from lakes and to never turn my back on them, and also that if an alligator is charging at me I should flee by zigzagging, the same way one runs to evade bullets. (Though the internet tells me that actually you should just run straight, and as fast as possible, away from both of these things.) It occurs to me that Florida is one of those places that should come with a warning. 

Like most everyone who is afraid of getting COVID, I had, as of late May, not been anywhere for more than a year. And like almost everyone I know who's gotten vaccinated, I booked a flight a little more than two weeks after my second dose. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why I spent most of June in Florida. And yet while I was there I couldn't help wondering: how on earth did I end up here—in, like, a cosmic sense?

“Here” includes, say, the line at the Hog's Head in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, in which we stood for 45 minutes for two cups of frozen butterbeer to smuggle home in various thermoses. Frozen butterbeer is basically fizzy cream soda with slushy ice in it and some foam on top, and it's extremely mediocre. (It's way worse than hot butterbeer, for one thing, which is both way more canon and much better tasting, though also something no one wants to drink when the air feels like it's actively trying to boil you alive.) If it were up to me, we wouldn't have waited any amount of time—especially not at the end of the day, when whatever youthful excitement I'm still capable of feeling had long since fled. But it wasn't up to me. So we stood in this line and I stared at all the other people in line, wondering what combination of bad taste and bovine instinct had led them all to remain in line 20 minutes after the park had officially closed—and then it was our turn and the bartender exhaustedly took our order, which was the exact same order she'd been filling by herself for at least an hour.

I am thrust, very briefly, into a Florida high school social group. They are loud and excitable and seem to revert to their teenage selves around each other, even though they're all about thirty years old. Next to them, I feel both extremely beside the point and terrified of drawing attention to myself. But later, I feel guilty about my discomfort. Oh god, I think, I'm such a coastal elite, with my expensive private schooling and penchant for going to classical music concerts. But then I remember that I'm also just very, very uncool. 

Apparently, you are more likely to get struck by lightning in Florida than to get attacked by an alligator. This is not that comforting, as Orlando is also the fifth thunderstormiest city in the U.S. I see some impressive thunderstorms while I'm there: lightning crackling down every ten seconds beside the freeway as we drive to a Disney resort (all the Floridians assure me on the drive that the interior of a car is very safe in a thunderstorm), literal waves of water rushing down the streets in a "rain river." The house I'm staying in has an oasis of a pool, all lizards and palm fronds and flourishing pink- and yellow-veined crotons, plus a hot tub. But I'm forever craning my head up to stare at the clouds, because if you hear thunder you basically have to get out of the pool immediately. I'm a true Californian: cheerful when the sun is out, gloomy when it's not. Every day in Florida is an emotional roller coaster. 

I read—and almost finish—David Halberstam's The Fifties in a house filled with faded floral curtains and dusty knickknacks, and can't shake the feeling that I've somehow stumbled into someone else's past. To be fair, the house's walls are also covered with photos of family memories that aren't my own, and I spend what feels like the entire trip attempting to fall asleep in someone else's incredibly uncomfortable childhood bed. 

Long past the point when jet lag is a valid excuse, I get up way later than everyone else in the house. Once, I am even congratulated for making it to breakfast before noon. Another day, at around 4 p.m., someone wonders downstairs, "Is Chelsea up yet?" Chelsea was up, thank you very much. But every morning at around 8 a.m. I am woken by a televised crowd whooping it up for Stephen Colbert. It's supposed to be The LATE Show with Stephen Colbert, I groan to myself, and flop into a different but equally uncomfortable position in bed.

A lot of time in this household is spent around the dinner table shaking heads over the follies of organized religion, Republicans, and the unvaccinated people my companions know personally. I listen with a fascinated, vaguely anthropological sense: so this is what it's like to be a beleaguered lefty in a swing state, where the barbarians are always at the gate—or rather, on the back patio, because they're your friends but now you can only interact with them outside because they refuse to get vaccinated. 

Another time, around the same dinner table, I'm treated to a feast of takeout Cracker Barrel. I've never been to a Cracker Barrel, and so over grits and chicken and fried apples everyone regales me with all of the things I'm missing: the gift shop filled with clothes, toys and old-timey stick candy, rocking chairs on the porch, singing fish and guns mounted on the walls. I privately think that eating surrounded by these people at home, telling me about their fond Cracker Barrel-related memories, seems much nicer than actually going to a Cracker Barrel. 

But it's only on our trip to Epcot close to the end of my stay that I get a full taste of the American enthusiasm for sanitized "themed experiences." Epcot is pleasant enough, but it is also, I discovered, a weird-ass place. If you're not familiar with the conceit of what is somehow the 7th most visited amusement park in the world, it’s basically a utopian vision of our entire planet crammed into 300 acres. There are sections of the park called "The Land" and "The Seas," with sedate, mildly interesting rides in each. In "The Land," we go on a fake hang-glider ride over the sweeping landscapes of various countries, and are misted with scents depending on the landscape we're "flying" over. Spaceship Earth, the ride housed in the iconic dome, motors you through the greatest technological achievements of human civilization, portrayed through animatronic figures and narrated by Dame Judi Dench. Then there's the "World Showcase" Epcot is famous for, sections of the park dedicated to the general vibe of 11 countries from Japan to Morocco. Even the grammar of Epcot is bizarre. My companions say sentences like, "Let's head over to Norway for some rice cream,” or “The line for Mexico is way too long,” and it takes me a while to realize that I should be imagining scare quotes around basically all of the nouns. 

That's the thing, though. Whether I was gazing at a smaller-than-life model of the Doge's Palace or watching a short "Circle-Vision 360°" documentary about China narrated by an English-speaking but accented actor playing Li Bai (for the authenticity!), I couldn't shake the sense that I was having a subtle but definite break with reality. Obviously, the point of all of Epcot is to get us to imagine, however briefly, that we're actually in Italy or China or a hang-glider that defies the laws of space and time. But that's what was so weird about the place: all the experiences felt like they were trying to conjure up a different experience, one that we were by definition not having. Which left the whole thing feeling oddly secondhand—even though the experiences we were having were, by definition, firsthand!! I found it all very destabilizing. 

I did end up hearing a lot about Disney the corporation from the Floridians I was with, because it seems to employ one out of every two Orlando-area teenagers (a purely anecdotal statistic) in its sprawling parks and resorts operation. I’m told that Disney has "cast members" in the parks instead of employees so they can discriminate in their hiring based on how you look. (One of our party was in fact hired as a resort lifeguard in high school, but was also ordered to cut off his long ponytail, which his brother describes as "one of the best things that's ever happened to him.") Disney, they tell me, somehow secretly buys land for miles around on the cheap and then goes to great lengths to eliminate mosquitoes from that land, no mean feat in Florida. And later in my Florida trip, I'm powerfully struck by the lobby of the Disney resort we visit, with its polished floors and air of restrained sumptuousness. Maybe it was just the lobby’s subtle but total commitment to theme (in this case, "beach club"); maybe it was just how "nice" it was, in an artificial way. It just all felt so…controlled, the same way the rides and exhibits at Epcot presented carefully manicured images of entire countries and the grand arc of history itself.

Obviously, I found this all pretty ominous. But I can also see why the Disney experience might be a comforting escape from the chaos of real life. Don't think of it as a break with reality—think of it as a vacation from reality! Maybe it's not a coincidence that there are so many elaborate theme parks in Florida, a state that seemed to me, by the end of my trip, to be so thoroughly steeped in chaos that even I wanted to flee to some happy, imagined paradise (like California). Still, reality will always find a way to creep into even the most defended of areas. You can't keep all the alligators out of Disney World. 



Shameless self-promotion/sponsored content/advertising section

Did you know that meteorologists classify clouds by genus and species? Neither did I, until I spent a ton of time in Florida feeling personally attacked by clouds and on the World Meteorological Organization's website in order to write an article about clouds in this past Sunday's New York Times for Kids! I have not yet acquired a readable pdf, so all I have are these tweets.

📚 FREE BOOKS: I receive ever more books. Help me get rid of them!!! 📚 

That train is looking pretty grimy, 5/15/21

I started reading Anna Karenina out of sheer pique. After my reading marathon in March, I spent a month earnestly beginning the books on my shelf and then throwing them aside like a fretful child. Why were all of these books so mediocre? Why hadn't I reached any insights about my own interests? Was I interested in anything at all? I spent an hour one morning leafing through an intellectual, coolly written collection of essays and felt such a reluctance to keep going that I got up, snatched Anna Karenina off the shelf, and read the first section (118 pages) in one go. 

I was prepared for something dense and confusing—it is an 822-page Russian novel in which every character has at minimum three names—but Anna Karenina almost reads like a guilty pleasure. Adultery crops up right off the bat: that famous first line about unhappy families is followed by a description of a household in the process of falling apart because the wife has just discovered that her husband has been cheating on her with the governess. Wealthy Russian aristocrats (including a startling number of princesses) are constantly going to balls, or to the theater, or to each other's houses, and some moments are even hashtag relatable: “The conversation began amiably, but precisely because it was a bit too amiable, it came to a halt again. They had to resort to the tried-and-trusted remedy—malicious gossip." Who wouldn't read on?

The novel follows two main couples. Anna Karenina—charismatic, beautiful and married—succumbs to an affair with Count Vronsky, some military dude with very few perceptible redeeming qualities. Then there's Levin, an eccentric aristocrat who lives in the countryside and is working on what he hopes will be a groundbreaking tome about Russian agricultural practices (pun intended). Levin is madly in love with a young noblewoman named Kitty, who starts out the book hoping Vronsky will propose to her. Luckily for Kitty, that doesn't happen. She and Levin eventually get married, and their relationship is far happier than Anna and Vronsky's, who spend most of the book failing to communicate, disagreeing over whether Anna should get divorced from her husband, and being bored in Europe. Eventually they return to Russia, where Anna causes a scandal just by showing up to a concert and later has an icy conversation with Vronsky that ends with her saying, " will regret this.” (Did I mention that the epigraph to the novel is "Vengeance is mine; I will repay"???) After that, there's a very striking stream-of-consciousness section where Anna distractedly rides around the city in a carriage for 16 doom-laden pages and ends up, famously, under a freight train.

It took me two weeks to finish Anna Karenina, and then I didn't quite know what to do with myself. I couldn't read—at least not right away. Instead, I wandered aimlessly around my apartment. I reorganized the closet, arranged the kitchen appliances into a more user-friendly configuration, and decided to make it my mission to finally clean the shower doors encrusted with soap scum. And then, mid-week, just as I had begun to wonder if I would accomplish anything ever again, I was persuaded to Scav.

Scav is short for "the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt," and it’s one of those weird college traditions that should not be a part of my identity but is—a core, irredeemably silly part of me that rarely sees the light of day now that more people than ever are convinced that I’m an adult. (To be fair, I have done Scav for 25% of the years I’ve been alive.) During Scav every May, hundreds of hell-bent students and alumni attempt to make/complete/perform as many zany items on a list as possible. I did not plan to Scav this year, mostly because deciding to Scav is like deciding to enter a fugue state for exactly four days. Nevertheless, Friday night saw me placing exactly 3,080 tiny plastic beads on a pegboard for nine hours straight to reproduce an image of a character from the movie adaptation of The Lorax because a very vocal minority of people on Tumblr were obsessed with him in 2012 (see item 20).

But my true come-to-Jesus moment occurred while I was knitting a map of the Isle of Wight. Specifically, I was Fair Isle knitting the map, a technique that switches between multiple colors, "such that the major outcrops and formations are represented by different pattern schemes. Your geological map should be to scale and have a key, lest ye be thrown to the DoGS (Department of Geophysical Sciences)." I started knitting sometime Saturday evening, feeling cocky. By 2 am my left hand had begun its transformation into a gnarled claw and my fingertips hurt and I kept losing my thread in the thicket of 10 strands of different colored yarn all tangled together like some goddamn Gordian knot and I had no idea which of the 53 rows in this pattern I made I was supposed to be on or what stitch I was on or what color it was supposed to be, and I wanted to scream. From there I progressed into a period of active self-loathing in which I rehearsed, in great detail, every humiliation, resentment and grudge I've been holding on to since college. (It turns out there are a lot.)

Eventually I accepted the fact that I would indeed be staying up until 6 am, and a feeling I can only describe as total Zen washed over me. There was simply nothing to be done about my circumstances; I felt serene, possibly even enlightened. My mind was blissfully blank as I knitted my final rows and clumsily embroidered the names of the Isle of Wight's geological formations onto my rumpled creation. I was one with needle and thread. I was unbound by earthly attachments and bodily needs. I was 99.8 degrees Fahrenheit, because I had gotten my second vaccine dose seventeen hours prior.  

There's this moment in Anna Karenina when Levin decides to scythe his meadows alongside the Russian peasants he has a love/hate relationship with. It's backbreaking work, he can barely keep up, and his rows are "haphazard and uneven." But as Levin gets into the flow, he becomes blissfully happy. "They did row after row. They did long rows and short rows, and rows with good and bad grass. Levin lost all awareness of time and had absolutely no idea whether it was late or early. ... There were moments in the middle of his work when he forgot what he was doing and it became easy, and in those moments his row came out almost as evenly and as well as Titus's. But as soon as he remembered what he was doing, and began trying to do it better, he immediately felt the full difficulty of the work, and his row came out badly.”

Throughout the book, in fact, I kept noticing references to "oblivion," this idea of forgetting yourself and entering into a kind of flow state. It's a weird thing to advocate for, oblivion. And yet, at the end of the book, Levin is nearly driven to suicide because he's reading all these philosophers—Spinoza, Plato, Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc.—and still can't figure out what the point of being alive is. Eventually he arrives at an epiphany: that attempting to reason your way to the meaning of life, as philosophers do, is an impossible task, that it might even be "intellectual dishonesty." Because everyone already instinctively knows the meaning of life, even the lowliest peasant, and all you have to do is not think so hard about it and just live according to the spiritual truths that we all inherently know. (The meaning of life, FYI, is "to live for God, for one's soul.")

I have to admit that I struggled with this ending—partly because I am not religious, but mostly because it is very difficult to get me to stop thinking. And yet I might be pulling a pre-epiphany Levin here, trying so hard to find myself in all those mediocre books. Maybe the answers aren't in books. Maybe I need to not try so hard—to simply go stitch by stitch, scythe swing by scythe swing, bead by bead, and eventually arrive at something that looks like life itself



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It turns out that I have lots of thoughts about reading, and I wrote about them in this long and very silly essay in which I narrate my experience taking a self-help course that promises to teach me how to "read better"! 

📚 FREE BOOKS: The spreadsheet is back! I added a bunch of new books, so request away: 📚 

Work hard pandemic hard, 4/6/21

For some reason, I am on the board of a nonprofit organization. Every year this nonprofit organization gives out prizes to books that were released the previous year. This is why last month, thanks to some exceptionally poor planning on my part, I set about attempting to read 27 books in the span of 19 days.

Week 1: Okay, I'll admit it: I procrastinated. I really didn't want to do all the reading. But I am also too guilt-ridden and duty-bound to ignore external obligations. So it is in a state of high dudgeon that I: read an autobiography of what it's like to be disabled and also an artist and then a collection of essays about what it's like to grow up, date, work, and live as a dark-skinned woman and then a reported memoir of growing up in 1980s San Francisco with a mom who runs a pot brownie empire. Scrounging for food in the kitchen, I resolve to finally use up all those canned goods we bought at the beginning of the pandemic that we've ignored ever since. I dump a can of baked beans on top of some pasta and eat that while reading the book about weed. One evening, I read the entirety of an essay collection about being an Asian-American poet. I read an astonishingly good memoir about escaping the Liberian civil war at age 5. I also read, in one three-hour span Sunday evening, five books of poetry: an 180-minute jumble of imagery and lyric and sly reference and a lot of disjointed words that beg to be parsed that I do not parse. I suspect that this is not the correct way to read poetry. 

Week 2: I cannot stop calculating the number of books I still need to read (17) and the number of days I have left (12) and the book-per-day rate I will have to manage to make it through all of them (1.41666666666…), though the answers are always the same. Minus the poetry, I'm averaging about 0.7 books a day, but I am convinced I can read 1.41666666666… books a day if I just try hard enough. I read a book about the emotional impact of the Mexican drug war and then a book about analyzing faces as works of art and then a book about art produced by incarcerated people in America: the art is enchanting, the conditions under which it's created sickening. On Thursday, I realize that it's been exactly one year since I left New York for California. I add some canned olives and a dash of alfredo sauce from a jar we mysteriously have to my baked bean pasta; it looks gross but is surprisingly delicious. I start but do not make it past the first 70 pages of a short story collection. I read a novel about a Black gay man whose Japanese-American boyfriend's mom comes to live with him while the Japanese-American boyfriend goes to Japan to tend to his estranged dad who owns a bar in Osaka and is dying of cancer. I cry multiple times. I create a weird but also tasty concoction by combining old boxes of vegan tomato soup with pasta and canned cannellini beans and a little bit of alfredo sauce. My mom gets vaccinated, and my dad tends to her post-second dose but also gripes because he's still too young for a shot, by about eight months. I read, in the news, about spring breakers bustin' out all over Miami Beach. My pandemic fatigue just looks like book fatigue.

Week 3: I note, with growing alarm, that I am falling behind: 12 books in 5 days means 2.4 books a day (lol). While waiting for my pasta to boil, I drag myself through a 523-page autobiographical novel (this page count does not include the “novel’s” voluminous index) by an elderly British literary light about all the dead old white men who have influenced him. I don't hate the book (though I seem to have developed a burning resentment towards overly long books); I simply pity the author. I read an utterly engrossing novel about Shakespeare's son who dies of the plague. I lie in bed in the middle of the day and read a book about moments in American history in which Shakespeare plays were relevant and only fall asleep twice. I read a book that makes me realize that the punitive way we treat people in America is in large part because one fraction of the populace really doesn't want a different part of the populace (which they see, nonsensically, as categorically separate) to get anything at all, which is pretty tricky when the rules apply to everyone. There is a shooting in Atlanta. On Wednesday, I am again enraged, this time by a book about St. Louis's racist history, but it is also more than 500 pages long and very difficult to read quickly, so it is not in my good graces. Also on Wednesday, I confront the fact that I now have to read seven books in two days—you can do the math—and finally, finally admit to myself that I'm just not going to be able to finish all the reading. I give up for the day and play Tetris instead. I finish the last of the bean soup, though there are still five cans of tuna I need to figure out what to do with. On my final day of reading, I power through a fascinating account of the 1831-2 slave revolt in Jamaica that eventually led to Britain abolishing slavery. 

Deliberations: By 8:50am on Saturday morning, I am sitting in a 20-person Zoom meeting. We deliberate for six hours. Afterwards, I feel vaguely empty, and a little stoned, though that's mostly just lack of sleep and my inability to handle any amount of caffeine. Completion is a fantasy we torture ourselves with, progress is in so many ways a mirage, and I am thrilled to finally be able to return to what I love most: doing absolutely jack shit. 



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I wrote about all the routine, non-coronavirus vaccines you get for the New York Times for Kids!

📚 So normally I would put my free books spreadsheet here, but I still have yet to mail those packages I mentioned in my last email like, a month and a half ago, and I feel too guilty about that to take more requests for now. Once I get my act together, though, the spreadsheet will return! 📚

The Overthinker, 2/14/21

For the past month or so, I've been doing what looks very much from the outside to be nothing. "Are you looking for a job, or are you happy where you are?" someone asked me recently, with the carefully modulated skepticism one uses when someone else's life makes no sense to you but you don't want to be overtly rude. I've personally been calling what I've been up to a "listening tour," though I am neither a tech CEO attempting to placate hordes of aggrieved employees nor a tech CEO coyly considering a bid for president. I have only one stakeholder, and we have marathon 24/7 meetings and can't decide on anything. 

You could also call what I'm doing soul-searching, or navel-gazing, which it turns out is an actual meditation practice according to the internet. (Delightfully, the practice is also termed "omphaloskepsis.") From a site appropriately called "Releasing Your Unlimited Creativity": "You can, if you wish, use your naval [sic] as an anchor point and go backward or forward in time asking yourself 'What brought me to this particular time, place and body?' or 'What are the potential impacts of using and not using this body?'" I ask myself some version of these questions every day, mostly while trying and failing to get out of bed any time before noon.

What I'm trying to do is solve a problem, a problem I've always struggled to articulate to other people because no one else seems to have it. And even if they did, no one can solve this problem but me. The problem is simply that I don't have, and never have had, a clear sense of what I'm interested in or what unites the disparate things I am interested in; it's why I ended up with a degree in geology despite having no intention of becoming a geologist. Recently I've concluded that what I'm really interested in is "meaning," which—well, you see the problem. Among other things, this fundamental vagueness makes it very difficult to write. Sometimes I feel like I've been mired in a writer's block seven years long and counting, and most of that time has been spent trying to convince the rest of the world that I'm a writer rather than figuring out what I might actually want to say or how I might want to say it. 

So I've been doing a lot of thinking—which, funnily enough, looks a lot like doing nothing. (And if Rodin is anything to go by, it looks like taking a particularly craggy dump.) Sometimes this means gazing abstractedly at the things on or around my desk, or lying in bed staring at the ceiling, or attempting to remember what delighted me as a child. I read, obviously, and take notes. It is all agonizingly amorphous and it's hard to tell whether I'm even making progress, though I feel like I am sometimes, maybe. At no point, however, does it look like something a parent, particularly one with a Masters of Business Administration, would recognize as anything approaching work. "Do you think you're being a little, you know, spoiled?" my mom asked me on a call one Saturday. Well, yes: I'm often convinced that all this thinking is an embarrassing luxury. Just as often, though, I can't see it as anything but an absolute necessity—which also kind of sums up our culture's vexed position towards the arts. 

It's not that there aren't plenty of suggestions out there for how people should spend their lives. In fact, seemingly everything—one’s parents, the distortions of prestige, public opinion refracted through a million subtweets—is trying to tell us, explicitly or implicitly, what we should be aiming for and how we should feel. (Bad, mostly.) Advice is cheap, and so little of it is any good; truly useful advice either descends at random, like falling space junk, or is preceded by tons of careful listening by a sympathetic interlocutor. But at the same time we cling to these set paths towards "success" (whose inadequacy as a ready-made concept I don't need to explain to you) because the world is complicated and constantly changing and so figuring out what each one of us really wants from our lives is complicated, too—and frightening, because it requires that we actually reckon with the fact that no one knows what’s coming next and no one really even knows what’s going on now and we’re all playing it by ear. What I'm trying to say is that advice about what you should do with your life “doesn’t scale,” as they say. I'm on my own.

Every weekday, I go out to a tiny nearby park, where delicate white blossoms are just beginning to open on the ornamental pear trees, filling the air with the unmistakable scent of jizz. The park contains an oval walkway, a large zero spread across the grass, and I pace around this walkway while listening to a productivity podcast and communing with my true spirit animal, a tech bro. Maybe you sense some irony here! But I will defend to the hilt that what I've been doing for the past month—the lying in bed, the staring aimlessly into space—is priority zero: the most productive thing I could possibly be doing. What people always seem to forget is that implicit in "being productive" is working hard/smart towards something, and it seems to me that not nearly enough time is spent working out what that thing is. We focus so much on the means that we've confused them with the ends, and to what end?

To return to The Thinker, this whole process does feel like an act of straining. But rather than straining to expel something, it's more like straining to hear something very, very faint, to pick out a recognizable tune from a rush of noise. I've been listening to the pianist Glenn Gould's famous recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations (both 1955 and 1981), which are noteworthy in part because at some points you can hear Gould humming along to the music he's playing. A lot of people really don't like the humming, which is not very tuneful and almost a bit eerie if you don't know what it is—it sounds like a weird ghostly fluttering around the music itself. The first time I heard it, though, I found it surprisingly profound: a reminder that an actual person was hitting the keys to produce the notes I had settled myself on a beanbag in the dark to listen to over fancy noise-canceling headphones, a person whose idiosyncratic experience of and sheer enthusiasm for Bach literally could not be contained. I spent most of my time on that beanbag trying to detect Glenn Gould's humming, and maybe if I get just as quiet and listen just as hard I'll be able to hear myself too. 




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I reviewed three short story collections for the New York Times Book Review, despite the fact that I have no idea how to review short story collections!

📚 FREE BOOKS: With your efforts combined, you've managed to clear out more than 60 books from my stacks, for which I am extremely grateful and very impressed. (I will try to mail the last four packages that have been lingering on my floor for weeks as soon as possible!) I'll keep updating the spreadsheet every time I send out this newsletter, though, so feel free to keep requesting. Link here: 📚

My new year's resolution is to stop all the pollution, 1/4/21

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 accountabilityor 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 miraculousas 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 timeevery minute of every daywith 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, oreven more insidiousbeing 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: 📚


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