On loop

It feels strange to enter a new year when not much is new, doesn’t it? Over the past month I’ve reveled in my share of escapist media to try and abate the craving for something, anything novel. I zipped through the dramas of The Queen’s Gambit, Emily in Paris, Bridgerton; devoured the culty book Godshot; even played the online game Among Us although I’ve never been a gamer, sure to switch out my character’s hat every chance I got. Because the reality is that my days have settled into routines. For the first time in my adult life, I have the time to stick with them. But it’s hard to distance the idea of having routines from the idea of being boring.

I tell myself that now there are just fewer chances to stray from the rhythm. One of the best things about New York before the pandemic was that the course of a night could change in minutes. A last-minute show ticket materialized from Twitter, a visitor texted that they were in town for a conference and posted up at a bar. Could I come by for a drink? Sure I could. But what about all the exercising, volunteering, cooking, reading, and sleeping I was hoping to schedule in? Eh, well. I would try and tick all the boxes in the 5-ish hours between my commute home from work and my bedtime, but it wasn’t possible, especially when stuff came up. Things were too erratic, too exciting. Brushing my retainer usually settled to the bottom of the list. That was fine.

Obviously, things changed. I have time for the retainer. I have time to portion out six chalky Bone-Up vitamins throughout the day, and I remember to take them. Fewer distractions. Is it better or worse? It just is. It is fine. It is, in fact, lucky to have any type of stability in this absurd world. So I’m trying to push that idea of boredom away.

Some of the routines, like taking those vitamins, are newly necessary. Every night before I go to bed, I sit stoically for twenty minutes while a bone growth stimulator sends electromagnetic waves through a little round magnet and a layer of ultrasound jelly to my clavicle. The machine, slightly bigger than a Palm Pilot, is terribly finicky for being so small and so expensive. Any twitch of movement and it shrieks at me, flashing ominous messages. NOT ENOUGH GEL. CONTACT CUSTOMER SUPPORT. 

I try and sit still, and pass the time watching or reading. All that fantastical content grips me fiercely, but briefly. Stories of ordinary people and places stick. I’ve been working through Les Blank’s documentaries, which are mostly short and always fascinating. They profile a culture or a niche topic or just an interesting person. A few favorites are Spend it All on Cajun culture and cooking, Gap-Toothed Women , and The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists about a capitalism-eschewing man who bedazzles all his own clothes. Sometimes, I watch old episodes of the PBS show California’s Gold, where host Huell Howser is just fantastically passionate about stuff in California (the land surfing episode is pretty fun). I loved Bryan Washington’s tender Memorial, where exquisite cooking scenes are a backdrop for working out relationships, and Jenny Offill’s Weather, which tugs at very 2016-2020ish end-of-days anxieties. 

Other routines I’ve chosen, and choose again and again. I wonder if they’ll stay when the distractions inevitably return. Every day at 4:30 I close my laptop to walk for an hour before the winter sun sets. Every day I do the same loop. I pop in my headphones to find out what else is going on in the world, with its people. I started listening to the podcast Ologies, beginning with the delightful episode on moss (bryology) featuring Dr. Robin Wall Kimmer. Same with You’re Wrong About and the show on Newsies and the Newsboys’s strike of 1899. You could argue that Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch and Hanif Abdurraqib are all extra-ordinary, sure. All the more reason I enjoyed The Daily’s audio recording of Abdurraqib’s story on the two musicians. They’re just people, too.

Doing the same walk every day, I notice changes in the scenery. I’ve stopped associating time with the days on the calendar. Instead, I tune into the signifiers I see from the sidewalk. In early November, two sapphire-blue Bud Lights glinted in the sun at the edge of a yellowing yard, an offering for the last stretch of warmth. A few days before Thanksgiving, a hulking bird waddled in the middle of a street. A turkey?! A vulture. It crouched unflappable as I approached, pecking at an oily slick of pink and red plastered to the asphalt. Days later, a different bird emerged: a faded flamingo with a Santa hat nestled in beside a mailbox. Someone up the hill set up a Senate runoff créche. Miniature disco-balls twirled inside a lantern, flicking spots of colored light onto a stretched banner blaring, “SAVE OUR CONSTITUTION” in large, hand-painted letters. Today, I passed, one, two, three, four, five Christmas trees on the curb awaiting their fate.

There are some steadfast landmarks too of course. My favorite is a simple smiley face that someone must have carved into the wet sidewalk pavement long ago. If I stand in the street, the face frowns. Hop over, and the smile’s up. It’s a little tragedy and comedy mask of my own private theatre, playing out each day.

Here’s a song to leave you with:

Until next time.