Last time I admitted my struggle with procrastination. I claimed it was suddenly over due to my recent adherence to a certain helpful timer. You may have greeted this announcement with skepticism, and I can’t exactly blame you. Ordinarily, it would be absurd to think that a lifelong bad habit would be fixed with just One Weird Trick.
But I didn’t tell you the whole truth. No, the real reason I know I’m permanently cured is that I did it: I arrived at the bottom of the procrastination hole.
You see, what was keeping me hypnotized recently was a rather embarrassing one-two punch of Sex and the City episodes and this game where you slide cupcakes around to merge into more and more extravagant cupcakes. You have to do this carefully because if the board gets too crowded with incompatible, non-mergeable cupcakes, you will lose. For hours I would sit watching Carrie inexplicably pine over the extremely creepy Big while I made the cupcakes swim across the screen.
Did I enjoy these pursuits? Not really! Could I stop? No!
But recently, two things happened: first, I got to the end of the series. Yes, even the movies. I did it. I know everything there is to know about those four ladies trying to find great love and great shoes in Manhattan. Can modern women have it all? Kinda!
And, I made it to the forbidden cupcake. The hardest-to-achieve one. It was amazing. I screenshotted it.
Witness the majesty:
It had taken me weeks of careful cupcake work but I did it. It turns out that the forbidden cupcake has “2017” written on it in frosting, which I think means my cupcake habit is out of date (less so than my choice of TV), but in either case I’m okay, and it’s over, because I got to the end of the cupcakes and I got to the end of Sex and the City, and finally I’m cured. I am a productive, well-rested, self-care machine. I no longer crave numbness or dawdling, and I never ever will again.
Lately I’ve been struggling a lot with procrastination. Maybe it’s the late-winter malaise, or the covid anniversary malaise, or maybe she was born with it!, but it’s been a daily struggle. I start with great intentions, but by the time I sit down with my first cup of coffee all of ten minutes after I wake up, I want a treat. I want a break. I want some time to luxuriate in the book I’m reading for fun, or the scroll-machine, before I get started on tasks. (I am very drawn to luxury when it’s time to do a task). But I’m not allowed to have luxury, because it’s time to work, so instead of choosing luxury or tasks I fall into the chasm in between them. I settle for numbness. I sit there letting my eyes grow fuzzy as I play some mindless game or refresh my inbox, watching minutes tick away apace. Then it’s time for a lunch break. And then all of a sudden it’s 4:30 and I panic and do everything.
(If you’re here from where I work: this is fiction and has never actually happened.)
I know part of this is just who I am and have always been. In years past I have received worried calls from long-distance boyfriends with whom I shared a Netflix password, concerned about the amount of episodes I was managing to watch of shows I claimed not to like at bizarre hours of the night. Especially when it got close to law-school midterms time.
But there’s a whole other part of me that just so wants to do better. I look at Ian, who manages to do the things he is supposed to do, and then he moves on to the things he wants to do. Imagine that! So often, I seem to do neither the things I’m supposed to do nor the things I claim to want to do.
Good news, though: I’ve been experimenting with a Pomodoro timer, which is working so far (four days in). Right now I’m all caught up on tasks I wanted to accomplish, and I’m enjoying a nice little glass of root beer on my terrace. I can extrapolate from this that I am permanently cured of my tendency to procrastinate and I will never again do it. Congratulations to me!
Next time, I’ll admit what has been keeping me stuck in the numb in-between.
The cloud follows me like a nosy neighbor. It thinks it knows me from my comings and goings.
“Your weekend in DC!” it declares when I take a lot of videos of myself atrociously fiddling on the recorder.
“Your trip to Houston!” it grins as it presents me with fourteen photos I took of an already-dented rental car on a work trip.
It has no finesse. It feeds me my past.
Your memories. Three years ago.
Your memories. Five years ago.
Your memories. Ten years ago.
It assumes these memories are all good.
Maybe that’s a fair assumption, based on my behavior. After all, I’ve got a digital garage teeming with these memories. They must mean something to me.
Or maybe they’re too painful, too overwhelming, to look at long enough to cull.
What the cloud doesn’t know is that having videos of you is so weird. Weird enough to creep me out, but not so weird that I have to purge them. Pictures are strange enough but videos are even stranger. It’s like you’re still alive in my computer. You’re also alive in the world, as far as I know, but in a very different way than you’re alive in my computer. Yet if I scroll back a certain way, there you are in motion and with sound, from years ago. I can stop you and start you when I like. It’s unnatural.
“Cull Google Photos” is a task on my to-do list. It’s been there for literally years, and it will probably be there until the to-do list itself vanishes when the internet collapses. But who knows? Maybe I’ll get around to it one of these days.
In the meantime, I’ve got memories served up to me daily.
Meme (n): Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another in a comparable way to the transmission of genes.
(Internet, slang) Something, usually humorous, which is copied and circulated online with slight adaptations, including quizzes, basic pictures, video templates, etc.
Memes are inherently reductive. This is their allure. To be relatable and sharable is to be simple and general. If ten people can relate, you have a tiny club. A thousand, you have a tiny meme. A few million, you’ve gone viral. A few billion, and you’ve hit the jackpot.
“Does anyone else like to breathe oxygen?” So relatable!
We seem to love being related to. We like to know who we’re like. This is the allure of the typing meme: which Hogwarts house are you? Which Sex and the City character? To make things like this work, you have to reduce each type to one or two dimensions. Charlotte is the prudish one! Samantha is the nympho! Ravenclaws are smart! Slytherins are evil!
The dark side of relatability, though, is that no one is that simple. This is why everyone thinks they’re a Carrie or a Gryffindor; those are the types that have the most facets. Rare is the person who thinks they’re a Charlotte or a Slytherin, because Charlottes and Slytherins have so little flesh. We’re all full people. Being complex is the most relatable thing of all.
If you look at Enneagram content on Instagram, as I have been known to do, you will find that most of it is like this: broad strokes, reductive, relatable. Sixes are the anxious ones! Fours are deep! Nines are sleepy!
When I see Enneagram memes about types I am not, I go, wow, that’s so shallow. There’s no way that a bunch of Eights feel that way. They’re people, after all. This is a cartoon! Who could possibly be defined by their rage that way? Or, mightn’t Twos feel a bit tired of the assumption that they’re only interested in helping others?
But then often, too often, when I see memes about Nines I go OOF! That hits. So maybe I am that simple.
All this talk about the gender of the Potato Head family has me thinking about a scarring memory of mine involving the gendering of children’s toys.
It’s probably not what you’re thinking.
Picture this: it was third grade. Our homework was some kind of essay. My essay had something to do with toys. I had to read my essay aloud for some reason. (Did everyone? I don’t remember, because what happened was so scarring that it erased everything else.)
There I was in front of the class, opus in hand.
Now, here’s something you should understand about me: I’m not a good self-editor. In high school when we had to provide a rough and final draft of an essay to show how well we’d understood the lessons about revision, I went ahead and wrote the final draft first—then had the actual hubris to make a worse version of my essay to staple on as the fake rough draft.
My point being, of course I didn’t notice before I was standing up there at the white board, ready to speak, that there was an important point missing from my essay. I needed to clarify (for some reason that is lost to history) that the children’s toys I was talking about in that moment were for boys. The paper in front of me said only “toys,” but—extemporaneously—I had to improve it.
I had to make clear that they were boys’ toys.
When it came time for me to say those words, though, what came out was “boy toys.” The entire classroom erupted in laughter. Raucous, unrelenting, at me. Boy toys! And I had no way of clarifying what I’d meant without making them laugh harder.
That’s how it goes when you’ve already stepped in it.
I had to just get through the essay, flustered as anything, and then sit down.
Honestly, it was somehow worse than the other time that year when I farted so loud that everyone around me turned and looked.
And that’s why I support the un-gendering of the Potato Heads.
I said that bliss is a room with a door that closes and people on the other side. It turns out I’m not alone.
There’s a whole YouTube genre of long videos with atmospheric sounds to help one focus or fall asleep. I’ve taken to putting these on one screen while I work on another, a magical way to make a window to anywhere.
Or, speaking of windows, you can try Window Swap and spend some time looking out someone else’s window somewhere in the world. I just journeyed to Geneva at night, Kolkata on a breezy day, Kyoto in the late afternoon.
A sub-genre of these atmospheric videos are of music manipulated to sound as though it’s playing in another room. Songs that are old and comforting. For three hours or eight hours you can listen to songs from the ‘30s sounding like they’re wafting through a closed door while it rains outside, like it’s a sleepy rainy Saturday and someone who loves you is making dinner while you nap, and they have the old wireless on.
Another genre is sounds echoing in large spaces, like old top-40 hits playing in a mall.
There’s something so human about wanting to be alone but not too alone. To be entertained but with the option of resting. To let down your guard. Sometimes we want to step away from the center of the action and sleep.
Do you have any corners of the internet that feel this way to you? Share them!
I can’t do [noun] because [proper noun] will think I am [adjective].
Something popped unbidden into your mind for “noun,” “proper noun,” and “adjective,” right?
So let’s get some advice from this mad libs exercise.
What’s the noun? What’s that thing you think you can’t do? Does part of you really really want to do it?
Who is the proper noun? Who lurks in the back of your mind as the person or institution who will judge you when you do the noun? For me, it’s someone random who I’ve rarely ever spoken to—not at all in recent years—and yet somehow my brain elected this person for position of Chief Judge of Me. I don’t like it. Consider whether you have such a person or group of persons sitting scowling at your choices in your imagination.
What’s adjective? What do you imagine “proper noun” will think about you?
So now you have your therapeutic mad libs. I can’t do [noun] because [proper noun] will think I am [adjective].
Some questions to ask:
Putting everything else aside, what’s one tiny step you could take towards [noun] today? How would that feel to you and you alone?
Would you change lives with [proper noun] if given the chance today? Are you absolutely sure?
Is [adjective] so bad? Would you rather never have [noun] than risk the possibility of being seen as [adjective]?
I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing often makes me go “OH.”
I read “Wintering” by Katherine May this winter. She has a name like spring, which is funny. The book’s subtitle (which must be the work of a publishing-house bureaucrat) is the misleadingly self-helpy “The Power of Rest and Retreat In Difficult Times.”
It’s not a self-help book. It’s a memoir about getting through hard times, as the trees do yearly. Even as humans, sometimes our leaves fall off because that’s the only way to stay alive. Then things get better.
There are a lot of anecdotes about the cold and the dark and the weather. A lot of visions about how time is cyclical and so is life. Katherine May wants us to remember that a modern insistence on 24/7 going and doing and improving is a lie. “Life meanders like a path through the woods,” May writes. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.” And: “Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”
I dutifully agree with her points about time, and stopping. But I can’t help it: winter drives me batty. I love the woods, and I love the idea of four seasons (we had only two and a half in California when I was growing up). But the actual reality of the brownness of March gets me down. Leafless trees in large numbers look like austerity itself.
It’s not just winter. Like me, Katherine May suffers from nighttime anxiety: “I’ve come to call it the “terrible threes”: the dark insomniac hours when my mind declares itself, fully fired, in the middle of the night. It always happens at three a.m.: a long way past late, but too early to surrender and start the day. There, in the truest night, I lie in the dark and catastrophise.” She invites us to treat night differently than day, just as we must learn to treat winter differently from summer: crawl out into the living room and read the kind of book that one’s mind refuses to focus on by daylight. Welcome the weird quiet.
This works for her, at least.
I’ve spent a lot of time and effort over the last few years trying to rid myself of anxious insomnia. I have partly succeeded. Largely, my success is down to actually resolving the problems that were keeping me up, whether through making tough decisions or by allowing time to pass to heal wounds.
But I’m still prone to the occasional night, or series of nights, wherein I lie awake simultaneously too hot and too cold to sleep, somehow too hungry and too full to get comfortable, dying for a large glass of cold water but also too tired to get up to go to the bathroom, and dreading having to go to the bathroom again if I give in to the water craving.
In these circumstances, I try to give in and enjoy the timeless time that is the middle of the night. Let the dark be dark, and the hours be long and quiet. But I have a terror of time during those hours. The way it ticks on, faster and faster. If I watch it, I feel that I’m choking on it all. If I don’t, it speeds on without my say-so.
That last paragraph—those are 1am thoughts, the kinds of thoughts I wrote down in a frustrated rant one night when I was struggling, just before I decided to call it and watch the Britney Spears documentary. Then I had to do a deep dive on Britney’s Instagram, which I imagine is unsettling at the best of times, and is a truly upsetting place at 3am.
Intellectually, I understand all the things we’re supposed to believe about nighttime and insomnia, just like I know the meaning we’re supposed to seek in wintertime. The unbroken eight hour sleep is only a myth. Humans are prone to changing rhythms. We should welcome them. Appreciate the dark, just like we appreciate the rhythms of scarcity and resilience and all that the natural world does to save its life when we’re tipped away from the sun.
But winter is so full of dark, and dark is menacing to a diurnal mammal like me. Winter, and night, are not my friends, and will not be. So, bah, humbug, says the worst part of me, in my most daytime, summer, macho voice. I’m going to eradicate insomnia from my life if it’s the last thing I do. And the winter, and the night.
“I’m not myself,” I said to him for many weeks while I was not myself. I meant I was unhappy.
“Maybe you’ve changed,” he said. That’s when I should have known.
I had changed, because change is life, but I had also not changed. And since then I’ve changed a lot, but I’m also resolutely me. There is something gobsmacking about thinking I’ve come so far and learned so much and then finding something—a picture, a memory, a scrap of a journal—that reminds me I’ve always been this way, and I’ve always struggled with what I struggle with.
It’s liberating and hilarious, seen in the right light. It’s human.
I’ve always been insecure, prone to solo wandering and wishing things were slightly different. Uncertain of quite what I want and how to be someone with a niche, because niche-people are people who know they are themselves.
But how am I not myself?
Here’s something I found that I wrote more than seven years ago:
“I’ll be John Grisham if I have to. I’ll be the John Grisham of environmental and administrative law…Someday I’ll find what makes me tick…As I get more in touch with what I’m feeling, I notice it’s all anger. Ablaze at all times, and I feed it with my schizophrenic chats to myself as I bike down the road, scowling at those who watch me, like how dare you interrupt us, we are clearly busy.”
I would have thought the great awakening to anger didn’t happen until 2019 or so. But I guess I’ve always been angry, and I’ve always been surprised that I’m always angry, and now I’m surprised that I’m surprised.
It’s unbearably cheesy when writers say things like “My characters always surprise me!”
Or, as the constantly problematic Diana Gabaldon (author of the Outlander novels) once said: “When [the protagonist] walked into the scene, I had no idea who she was or what she’d do. All of the men in the room were staring at her, but I didn’t know why. Then she opened her mouth and started talking like a modern woman. I fought with her for several pages, trying to make her talk like an 18th century woman, but she just kept talking like a smart-alecky modern woman. It’s all [her] fault there’s time travel in ‘Outlander.'”
Stuff and nonsense, say I!
I don’t hold to this theory of character at all, ostensibly because it’s really corny but actually because it makes me jealous.
Characters mystify me. I have to plan them with a lot of help from the Enneagram and outlines and research and preparation. I spend a lot of time fighting to imagine what these non-me people might do or feel in the plot’s circumstances. I resent these authors who pretend to have a whole dramatis personae volunteering to live comfortably inside their head.
But just the other day I learned that one of my characters has the hots for another one, and I don’t know how else to say it but that. She was on stage to do one thing, and she started staring at him on a horse and having feelings about it.
I guess it’s like playing piano: there’s more going on when you write than what is conscious. And whatever small part of me is that character—well, she just wanted me to know how she felt. She felt that he looks damn good.