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. 

—Chelsea

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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. 

—Chelsea

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📚 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: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1jAMjuqIJT8CdPDDTWOC0r9VpSFWXvzGtEir9byDwan4/edit?usp=sharing 📚

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. 

Chelsea

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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 📚

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Twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom, 8/10/20

I have had the same song stuck in my head for the past month. No, it's not Weird Al's Hamilton polka (though that one did take up residence in my cranium for about a week) or "Lose Yo Job," which did the same back in June. Instead, it's French composer Maurice Ravel's 13-minute opus La valse, which premiered a hundred years ago, in 1920. In the quiet moments when I'm waking up, or absentmindedly brushing my teeth, or reading anything, I'll realize that swoony, ominous waltz melodies are warbling very quietly through my mind, like a soundtrack for the very boring public television show that is my life. 

La valse isn't just a waltz, though, despite its name. Most waltzes are stately and proper; La valse is messier, more impressionistic, chaotic neutral instead of lawful good. Even at the beginning of the song, when things haven't fully disintegrated yet, you get the feeling that you've maybe quaffed one too many glasses of sparkling wine and are lurching more than dancing across the ballroom. (It doesn’t help that every thirty seconds the orchestra keeps changing the tune.) And closer to the end, things slowly but surely become apocalyptic: suddenly there are Star Wars-like horn blasts and it sort of sounds like chandeliers and chunks of ornately carved ceiling are now breaking free and falling on people. The general mood is "edifices crumbling." Which is why, when the piece premiered shortly after World War I, everyone thought it was really about the collapse of decadent Western civilization. (Ravel, for his part, was like, "Look, people, I just wanted to write a tribute to Johann Strauss II, the greatest waltz composer of all time.”)

In some ways it's obvious why La valse would be stuck so insistently in my head right now. It's a mood, the mood of the newest iteration of the decline of Western civilization currently underway, or 2020’s ambient, all-encompassing chaos, or simply the doom-laden state of mind that creeps in whenever I think about the/my future. But the song is also connected obscurely in my mind with what I spent large swaths of July doing. Somehow, with the help of modern technology, very good spatial recall, and two impossibly generous and reliable Brooklynites, I managed to move out of my New York apartment without leaving California. Moving remotely is actually kind of great: mostly I let my friends take whatever they wanted, arranged to sell my furniture for extreme bargain rates on Craigslist, and donated what I couldn't sell or give away to Goodwill. And last weekend, I received all of what remained: the rest of my possessions in New York crammed into a large suitcase, a duffel bag, and five cardboard boxes (one of which contained 43 pounds of books) and shipped across the country. I am officially, as of July 31, no longer a New Yorker. 

But really, I ceased to be a New Yorker months ago, though I couldn't tell you exactly when. At some point I put my carry-on away in the closet next to my puffy winter jacket, stopped looking for cheap flights back to the city, and let my New York Review of Books subscription lapse. There was no real inciting incident, no sudden epiphany of how untenable it was to go back. As late as June I was still devising plans for where I might live for the final semester of my program. Hear me out, I told my parents—what if I just couch-surfed for three months straight? (Did I really have that many friends in New York?, they countered.) Eventually I came to the obvious conclusion that I simply would not be returning to New York for the next very long while.

Which is fine, honestly. I spent barely seven months physically there, and spent most of that time bearing something of a grudge towards the city for being overhyped and underdelivering. Why on earth was the food so mediocre and so expensive? Why, in fact, were all basic necessities priced so exorbitantly? Why was it utterly exhausting to go anywhere? And how could anyone live in peace knowing that rats and cockroaches could scuttle in and out of your home with impunity???? So much of New York's glamour either glosses over the steep costs of living there or romanticizes them (the grime and the hustle, they make you strong), and I felt stodgy and uncool for not buying in.

Of course there were things I genuinely liked. I liked the unaccustomed sense of autonomy I felt when I could walk or take the subway anywhere without feeling like a second-class citizen because I don't drive. (Living within walking distance of the Met and paying merely a suggested donation because I was a student in New York felt like a literal miracle, or some sort of amazing scam, though I never actually got in for free—I felt too guilty about informing the cashier that I wouldn't be donating anything.) I liked how many of my friends I was able to see—everyone comes through New York eventually. But in the vast majority of my memories from those seven months, the parts I really remember, I was cold and exhausted and lonely. When I left, I felt more relieved than anything else. 

But there's New York the actual place and New York the dream, and while I'm skeptical of fetishizing any real person, place, or thing (or animal, vegetable, or mineral), I can't help but feel a twinge of loss. I'm far too close to thirty to fritter away my youth in some low-paying media job and have a series of meaningless flings in ThE GrEaTeSt CiTy In ThE wOrLd, but now I'll never get to—even if I've never, at any point, actually wanted that life. But that's okay, because someone's already written something that captures the complex swirl of grandness and dissolution that comes with moving away from The City, and it ain't (just) Joan Didion. It was also a French dude who lived a hundred years ago and thought Viennese waltzes were the shit.

—Chelsea

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Gross domestic productivity, 7/2/20

Since the school year ended, I've been asked more than once what I'm up to this summer. What I don't say: that I’ve spent most of my summer thus far asking myself that very question. What I do say: "Uh, like, chilling, I guess?"

But really, where does the time go? I lie in bed for hours and eat (junk) food and re-watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and talk on the phone for astonishingly long periods of time and read books and try to read the news more and sometimes even walk around outside and, one glorious weekend, watched the Met Opera stream of Philip Glass's Akhnaten, which was maybe the highlight of this entire godforsaken year. What I'm not doing is an internship, or writing stuff for publication, or basically anything my superego would deem "productive."

I have, however, also been dedicating hours of time to playing a very elaborate board game called Gloomhaven. Gloomhaven is relatively new, wildly popular among aficionados, and comes in a box that weighs approximately 20 pounds and is roughly the size and shape of a juvenile Galápagos tortoise. You play as a mercenary in a band exploring the city of Gloomhaven and its environs, completing scenarios that involve fighting various monsters (ravening animals, elemental demons, resurrected corpses, etc.) as larger questlines unfold. I started playing a few months ago, close to the beginning of the pandemic, and my starting character, naturally, was a sinister rat-like creature who controls other animals with its mind. 

But the real draw for me wasn't all the world-building. It's the fact that the game is almost comically replete with goals to accomplish: the win conditions for each scenario, secret "battle goals" distributed to each player before scenarios, maximizing gold or experience points, leveling up, raising (or decreasing) the group's "reputation," or raising the city's overall prosperity. Each character even gets a secret career goal that, once accomplished, forces you to retire and start a new character. 

I find all this neat progression ridiculously addictive, possibly because I derive my self-worth from accomplishing things. Sure, I felt becalmed and anxious about my real-life career goals, but at least I could throw myself aggressively at my very concrete, very not-real Gloomhaven career goal, where there was only one path to success and no doubts about whether I could actually get there.

There was a period of time, right after the semester ended, when I became laser-focused on designing a daily schedule that would give me a handle on all the time I now had, time as voluminous and unmanageable as my pandemic hair. How, I wondered, could I harness my seemingly unbounded motivation to play Gloomhaven towards my actual objectives? But then my objectives shifted. Everything I've ever been told was bad for productivity now seemed crucial: getting lost in the news on my phone, scrolling through social media, having impromptu, rambling phone calls and video meetings, saying yes to administrative grunt work and more responsibilities, none of which will pay me a dime. I have been writing, but it’s not for my own personal gain—at least, not directly. 

None of this comes naturally to me. I’ve been averse to reading the news ever since I was a kid and my dad would pointedly pile up the New York Times, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal by my breakfast every Sunday morning, which I would ignore. (A promising start for someone currently enrolled in journalism school.) I’ve never liked group projects; I am not a joiner. My preferred mode of existence thus far has been to go into a corner, shut myself off from the world, and work. But I worry now that it’s too easy for someone like me, who after all has spent much of her life getting lost in works of fiction, to get too far into my own head. It's straightforward enough for me to read large numbers of books or complete homework assignments—I've spent my entire life honing my ability to do these things. But how do I track my general awareness of the world and my place in it? How do I put metrics on the well-being of the people around me, or the strength of my various communities? What I'm just beginning to discern is that so much of actual life isn't a series of goals at all, to be meticulously checked off upon completion. It's never-ending maintenance, and constant incremental learning and thinking, and the hard, slow process of trying to make your corner of the world just a little less shitty.

A few weeks ago, I finally completed my Gloomhaven career goal and unlocked a new character. At risk of being terribly on the nose, my new character is a healer, which means that I now kill way fewer monsters and am constantly checking in with my teammates to ask how many hit points they have. I have a new career goal too, which I could pursue to the exclusion of all else—but I’ve decided, this time, to let the story take me where it will. 


—Chelsea

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This is way overdue, but back in March I wrote about the domestication of cats and dogs, and in May I texted with a scientist about a coronavirus vaccine, both for New York Times for Kids!

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