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 📚

*sorry

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!

Galaxy brain, 6/6/20

Sometime around last Sunday, all of the personal ambitions I had obsessively been figuring out how to achieve started to seem self-indulgent and frivolous. Instead, I spent hours scrolling through my newsfeeds feeling restless and angry, and when I wasn't staring at my phone I was lying down, feeling heavy. Who cared about getting my essays published when people were getting disproportionately killed—whether by police or COVID-19—merely for being black? But the horror was also directed at myself: why did it take the murders of countless black people splashed all over Twitter and Facebook to get me to really, finally pay attention? What was I doing that it took me so long? Sure, I was against racism—in theory. But now it became searingly obvious that if I continued to do nothing, I was in fact part of the problem.

Before the protests began, I had been thinking about the importance of paying attention to context. I was totally wrong about coronavirus, I admitted to my parents—I'd brushed off their worry back in February as just so much Asian parent fretfulness. What I'd failed to consider was that I had put too much implicit faith in the authority figures here who were telling us that everything was fine, who in turn had put too much faith in the notion that it couldn't happen here—as if America were somehow immune to the ills that afflicted other countries. Relying solely on authority, it struck me now, was a shortcut that bypassed real reasoning. And further, if other people's well-being directly impacted my own, as coronavirus was unequivocally showing me, then didn't I ignore the experiences of other countries, and groups I didn't think of as "my own," and history itself at my peril? That's as far as I got before the protests started and I realized that everything I had been thinking about was now immediately, terribly relevant. 

I don't feel good about myself or the world right now. But I'm also pretty uninterested in feeling better about myself. My discomfort is what's forcing me to change the way I think and act, and it's what's making me finally recognize that my ability to turn away from racist violence and racism in general whenever I want is just one part of the immense privilege I've had my entire life. I've also spent most of my life skeptical that I could make any difference—what do I have to contribute, as naive and uncharismatic as I am? But that strikes me as the wrong way to look at things now, too. I might be naive and uncharismatic, but I exist in the world, in the community of all the other people who exist in the world, and thus it behooves me to do what I can to help the most vulnerable among us. I'm determined now to figure out how exactly I might do that.

—Chelsea

COVID’s metamorphoses, 4/6/20

Standing in a Safeway the day the shelter-in-place order was announced, I finally understood why people hoard things. What would I need to live if I couldn't leave my house for three weeks, I wondered, gazing around at the hordes of other shoppers—and who really knew how long this would all last? I realized I would need a lot. I also realized that I had no idea what exactly those things were. A heretofore unfamiliar feeling shot through me: a prickling anxiety that could only be assuaged by buying lots and lots of consumer products. 

To guide myself, I looked at which sections of the store were particularly sparse. The toilet paper and paper towels and household cleaning supplies had already been cleared out, but we grabbed a few cans of baked beans, which we never eat, by the way, and still have not figured out how to consume. (What are we supposed to do, eat them from a pot over an open flame, à la Blazing Saddles?) In the tundra-like bread aisle, we briefly considered some kind of flour-dusted "artisan" bread before spotting a lone loaf of Signature Brand whole wheat, which I inspected carefully before depositing it into the cart, along with an industrial-sized jar of peanut butter. 

The only pasta on the shelves were lasagna and manicotti. I picked up a box of manicotti, which contained 14 individual manicottos that looked like really big penne, considered it, and then put it back—things would have to get truly dire before I'd be willing to figure out how to cook manicotti. But even when I was choosing things there were plenty of, I felt uneasy. Where's the line between buying a reasonable amount and hoarding? Am I still a responsible citizen if I buy three family-size boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios? It was paralyzing, having to weigh the abstract but very real needs of everyone else with my own concrete appetites every time I took something off the shelf. Later, when we go to a different Safeway and see a sign taped up that says each household is only allowed five boxes of pasta, I feel a relief that borders on the existential. Then we grab five boxes of pasta.

One evening, we attempt to cook dinner, and our too-hot skillet sets off the smoke detector. I fling open a window. Half an hour later, while we’re sitting down to eat, we hear the same alarm, but more quietly. Through the open window, I catch sight of someone in the apartment across the way opening their own window. Quarantine makes inept home cooks of us all.

I have fled New York for California. But in my haste to leave the city, I brought a piddling five books with me, which made my first few days here about as psychologically hospitable as a recently-emptied Safeway bread aisle. (Admittedly, I had packed only for spring break, which I now see was a grievous lapse of judgment—couldn't I at least have had the foresight to bring the books I needed for the rest of the semester?) I'm usually reluctant to buy books because I'm a dirty cheapskate, but after about two weeks, I broke. I went on Amazon and the website of a local bookstore and felt another unaccustomed emotion: a wild-eyed greed that might be properly termed "booklust." When I regained my senses, I had purchased 10 books.

At one point, I went a full week without so much as breathing air from outside the apartment. It's overcast for a couple weeks, but one Monday it looks enticingly sunny out, so I suggest we go for a walk. It's nice—for about two minutes. (I had blissfully forgotten that wind existed.) We walk down the sidewalk, and a guy in a mint green Prius shouts “Six feet apart!” at us. Along a creek, we see an egret and a fat, slow squirrel, but all the miracles of nature can't transport me from the burning itch that progresses from the back of my thighs to just above my knees. When we get home, I claw at my legs, look up "exercise related allergy,” and lie down for hours. My nose starts dripping aggressively. I am soon surrounded by sodden tissues, and my throat is raw from sneezing so much. Attempting to breathe through one partially-clogged nostril as I lie in bed, I remember that I am literally allergic to being outside. I am made for quarantine.

I’m made for some parts of quarantine. Classes are still in session, but one of mine is now at 6:30 am, because I'm three time zones behind New York. I spend most of that class in a stupor, which is—throwback!—exactly how I spent 90% of my college classes. Every Wednesday, I confront anew the reality that I will never be a morning person. I can barely croak out a sentence, let alone well-formed ones about Christopher Hitchens or Maggie Nelson or Zadie Smith. After class ends three hours later, I flop back into bed and wake up at 1 pm, whereupon I am served a bowl of pasta that I blearily eat, also in bed. I feel vaguely guilty—I've been feeling this more and more lately—but all the rules of normal life have been, if not broken, at least a little warped. 

In the evening, I play Tetris for hours, staring worshipfully into the computer like it's an opiate and I'm the masses. Since I started playing three weeks ago, I've improved a shocking amount. The version I'm playing is called Tetris Effect, and instead of the standard rainbow of blocks and a boopy chiptune Russian folk song, each level has glowing tetrominoes, sparkly lights in the background that glitter and move whenever you press a button, and its own trance-y, ambient music, punctuated by wind chimes, tribal yells, firework explosions, bird chirps, or children vocalizing, depending on the level's theme. I also experience the Tetris effect for the first time: When I read a Jonathan Franzen essay for class, I start seeing little L- and J-shaped blocks in the white space between the words.

There are times when I look up from playing Tetris Effect or rearranging Bananagrams tiles (there’s something obscurely comforting about stacking little blocks right now) and realize that I have forgotten about coronavirus. This lack of alarm alarms me. I Google "coronavirus" and "coronavirus california" and "coronavirus new york" every few hours in an effort to scare reality into me, but even then, my eyes just slide right off the text, like they're trying to protect me from the truth. Is this how denial works? 

The times I don’t forget about coronavirus are when I'm attempting to write, which is mostly when I Google the news—trading one ambiguous torment for another. I've become even more distractible, scrolling through Facebook and my news alerts and all four of my email accounts like an animal restlessly pacing a cage, except the cage has lots of pasta in it and also the internet. When I ask people how things are wherever they are, they shrug. Fine, they say. Or "I don't know, I haven't been outside in approximately five eons." None of us really know what’s going on—news outlets (increasingly, for me, local newspapers) are our only windows to what’s happening out there. Unless you‘re sick, or caring for or worried about someone who is. Then, well, you are the news.

I, like most humans, am incredibly bad at internalizing abstract threats. My parents and sister are champions at it, marathoners who have maintained a state of active, proactive worry for weeks, which I feel both shamed by and impressed with. "My roommate bought me bananas yesterday and I washed each one individually with soap this morning," my sister reports. Another day, our dad texts us suggesting that we should carry around mechanical pencils so that whenever we're in an elevator, we can use them to press the buttons. 

While scrolling through Facebook, I keep coming across the idea that "however you feel right now is exactly how you are supposed to feel." One of the weirdest feelings I've had in the past few weeks is the foggy sense that it's somehow become harder to think. Things aren't quite clicking together anymore, like an extremely doomed game of Tetris; connections are harder to make. But I guess that makes its own sort of sense. What we know—about the future of literally everything—is so limited and provisional and in flux right now that how can anyone draw firm conclusions at all, or feel certain about anything? But then again, maybe that's always been true, and we're only just really realizing it now.

—Chelsea

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I wrote a review of a book from the 1970s by famous Taiwanese writer Sanmao, feat. my parents!

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