20: Mannequins

I turned in my book manuscript a few weeks ago. It took 18 months to complete, if I start counting from the moment when the idea first wormed into my brain. It's by far the biggest writing project I've ever tackled.

Afterwards, I expected to feel a satisfying sense of completion, but mostly I just felt relieved. I didn't think of it as having finished a manuscript so much as having expelled a virus from my body. [1]

What I hated most about this past year was feeling unable to seriously think about anything besides this one thing. Everything I read or talked about was in service to the thing. There was nothing but the thing. I wrote the thing so I could get it out of my head, but I honestly don't even know if it's good. Maybe I got infected by a mediocre virus, like dying unexpectedly from the common cold.

While I was writing, I'd often find myself fantasizing about my post-book life. My other, neglected ideas sulked at me from their dusty corners like long-faced Afghan hounds, and I'd turn away, muttering that I'd be back when all this was over. In my post-book life I will write about all the other things I've been meaning to write about. In my post-book life I will go on a real vacation. In my post-book life I will find myself with an unexpectedly free evening, and instead of writing, I will drink wine and play video games.

I spent my first book-free Saturday lying in bed, doing nothing, letting random thoughts drift through my head and feeling totally bewildered by the concept of leisure time. Then I pulled myself together and started tackling all those neglected ideas. I revisited the mess of notes I'd been pushing off. I drafted up a few blog posts and told myself I'd start publishing again the following week.

But within a week, the small tickle in my Twitter feed's throat surged into a raging infection. I'd seen news cycles take over Twitter before. They usually clear up within a few days, but this one only got worse. I watched it spread: 10% of my feed. 30% of my feed. 80% of my feed. Then, very suddenly, 100% of my feed, fully metastasized, all screaming about the same thing.

I realized, with a sense of horror, that I'd been infected again, this time with an idea-virus I didn't want, but that massively outdwarfed the one that had gripped me for merely a year and a half. With each person it infected, the virus grew stronger, making it impossible to escape. I and others ceased to be real people. We'd been swapped out for wooden mannequins, marching through our day and repeating the same three or four dialogue options. “It's not about protecting yourself, it's about protecting others.” “It's about slowing growth, which means we have to take aggressive measures now.” “Oh, we just stocked up on groceries, working from home, being cautious but not doing anything too crazy, how ‘bout you?”

It felt as if the insides of my brain had been unwillingly scooped out and taken from me, like something from The Body Snatchers. I didn't want this virus. I had my own small set of homegrown strains that I'd been eager to unleash upon myself. But every person I encountered was also infected, so we could only mechanically flail our limbs and parrot our practiced lines to each other.

The last friend I saw in person – about two weeks ago now — set a timer on her phone for an hour. We tried not to talk about it, but we lasted 16 minutes before the virus consumed our minds and mouths and voices, late into the night.

The financial market crashed, but I guess I'm also quietly mourning the crash of our social markets. Of course things will bounce back, but in the meantime, I feel totally paralyzed by the sameness that's been forced upon us, stretching into an interminable horizon. While the virus grips our minds, all other thoughts are rotting in the wings, waiting for the market to recover.

This virus is stronger than anything else that I could talk about. On the other hand, being part of this grand global experiment is probably way more interesting. (When's the last time this many people were forced to think about the same thing, all at once?) At least, that’s what I tell myself I’ll think when I look back on this time in five to ten years. Ideas don't belong to people, anyway, so I've succumbed for now. I don't have a choice in the matter, and neither, it seems, does anyone else.


[1] I wrote about idea-viruses last year, meaning that I think of people as a conduit of (“prophets”), rather than the driver of (“founders”), ideas.

Apropos of nothing, here's my current workout routine. It's a loose mix of HIIT, aerial circus, and kickboxing stuff that I like to do. I wouldn't say it's the most optimized routine, but right now, doing the same thing every day feels comforting, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

  • 15-min run along the water

  • Stand on platform by the beach, lower body circuit, do:

    • 20x jumping jacks

    • 15x air squats

    • 15x lunges with double pulse at the bottom + high knee

    • Hold lateral lunge, 15x toe taps (same leg as lunges)

    • Switch legs, repeat lunges + lateral lunges on other leg

    • 15x split jumps or jump squats

  • Repeat however many times until I feel like I'm gonna die

  • Stand and gaze upon the water, briefly contemplate my existence

  • 15-min run home

  • Abs interlude, do:

    • 15x V-ups (keep legs dead straight)

    • 15x straddle V-ups (straight legs)

    • 15x pike V-ups (legs bent to tabletop)

    • 25x jab-cross situps

    • 15x scissor kicks

  • 10x burpees

  • 15x mountain climbers

  • Upper body circuit, do:

    • 30x pushups

    • 15x bent-over rows on each side

    • 15x double bent-over rows

    • 15x double curl to press

    • 15x overhead tricep extensions

    • 15x deadlifts

    • 15x kettle swings


Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • There’s some parallel between how people undervalue local politics, and the idea that “we treat the people closest to us worse than anyone else”. Like somehow having this greater level of intimacy actually makes people take it more for granted

  • Why does building a personal brand on Medium feel icky, but building a personal brand on Twitter does not, even though both are equally homogenizing products?

  • Underrated: suburbs as breeding ground for creativity. There’s nothing else to do, so you turn to your computer/phone, switching off between your virtual world and the cozy comfortable cul-de-sacs, shooting the shit with your friends and letting your mind wander

  • Something I don’t really get: with some hedonistic experiences (like college drinking), eventually after doing them repeatedly for awhile, they start to lose their novelty/appeal. But other hedonistic inputs (like sugar) don’t have that quality. Why not?


  • Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Jennifer Burns): I've often wondered why Ayn Rand is such a lonely figure, despite her success. If her work was so popular, why didn't she have more intellectual peers? This well-written biography gave me some clues, including her staunch atheism that clashed with the rise of a religious right. Ideas aside, I find myself endlessly tickled by Rand’s grumpy personality (at one point she describes the “disgusting California sunshine” when she's forced to move from New York to LA). I also find something lovely about how she chose to live her life, totally immersed in ideas, even as they made her miserable. She may not have been well-liked, but damn this woman knew what she wanted.

  • The City & The City (China Miéville): I haven't read this book recently, but I can't stop thinking about it whenever I’m outside right now (less than an hour per day, I promise!). It's about two cities that are built on top of the same geographic space. The residents from each city maintain separation by observing social norms like not looking at each other, ignoring sounds from the other “city”, etc. When I first read this book, I thought “man, that's a super interesting idea, but totally unrealistic”. Now that I'm living in a version of it, I keep thinking how pandemics are a really good plot device that I hadn't considered before.

  • “How Carrots Became The New Junk Food” (Douglas McGray): How baby carrots became a thing, as told by the CEO of Bolthouse Farms. Apparently they made a deliberate propaganda campaign (not even tied to their company’s name!) to reinvent the image of carrots. What I particularly loved about this is how baby carrots were deliberately marketed as a junk food rather than a health food (they come in little plastic packages, they're crunchy like potato chips). Lots of fascinating brand decisions that are covered in here.

  • “The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans” (Tom Mahood): A very entertaining read from a retired civil engineer who got obsessed with an unsolved search-and-rescue mystery. Taking matters into his own hands, he successfully tracked down a missing family that had disappeared 20 years before. The ultimate nerd snipe. And, of course, a story of amateurs triumphing over experts, which is always my favorite kind of read.

  • “Network Status” (Lumi): Lumi is a platform for package manufacturing. They made this website to track the "uptime" status of supply chains, given the ongoing disruptions, which I just thought was rather clever. I like thinking about physical supply chains like software and vice versa, in that both are forms of infrastructure.