Queen of Reps (On Spaceship Earth)
By Elvia WilkDecember 6, 2020
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AN INFLUENCER I follow on Instagram posts female-focused self-help content about boundaries and expectations during quarantine. She says it’s okay not to be productive during this unprecedented time. She says we should be kind and forgiving to our bodies. She says we should be wary of wasting our energy. She posts up to 30 times a day. I look at every single upload, clinging to the reassurance even as I loathe the basicness. I eat it up like butter — butter, a formerly unhealthy ingredient that scientists recently deemed healthy after all. I’m jealous of this influencer, this person who seems to have a definitive idea of what life’s healthy ingredients are.
Day 50-something or 60-something of quarantine in Brooklyn. I wake up and look at Instagram. I hardly notice the sound of constant sirens outside anymore. My partner, A, is probably in the kitchen chopping or cleaning, or maybe he’s having coffee and reading a book on the fire escape. I roll out of bed and head straight to my command station: the computer, where I spend several hours trying to concentrate on pumping out words. Eventually there is lunch, after which there is the dishes, after which I do a workout video in front of my computer.
Remember your breath, yogis, the on-screen instructor with calves like onion bulbs says. He’s talking to the group of people doing the workout with him in the pre-recorded video but he’s also talking to me, implicitly. Which makes me a yogi too, implicitly. My fellow yogis in the video are a diverse bunch, “all shapes and sizes.” One of them is not thin, which is supposed to be inspiring.
This isn’t really yoga. It’s some yoga postures as a preamble to three circuits of crunches and squats. As a grand finale we go through the asanas while holding five-pound weights. I watch the yogis in the video wincing and grunting. Just four more! You got this … I notice one of the yogis cheating, she’s only doing every other rep. I wonder when this video was recorded. It must have been in a time a place where people were allowed to be in the same room together. This makes me wistful, but then I remember that I prefer to work out alone anyway. I don’t want anyone to see me wincing and grunting or skipping reps. I don’t want a witness to my work.
My work ethic is a major problem. This is the big lesson of quarantine. I have no structuring principle for how to spend my time besides work. Sans any “life” events outside the domestic vacuum to outline my days, the work problem has become a problem. The issue is not simply that I’ve filled the hole left by social and professional routine with extreme working hours instead of something nice. It’s not even that work is the only way I know how to “cope.” It’s that my productivity itself has lost its telos. I can no longer figure out what I’m working toward. The future is a blank space; it always has been; once you understand this, your ordering principle falls apart.
I have no muscles that have developed through play or manual labor — just countable reps. I write a certain number of words today; I answer a certain number of emails today; I do a certain number of lunges. I lunge — “a sudden thrust forward of the body,” as if to seize prey — and then I retract without grasping anything in my jaws. Just the lunge and the act of lunging. A certain number of lunges. A certain number of calories. A certain number of recreation hours. And then the day is over.
A, for instance, is very productive too. He gets work done. Only he doesn’t seem to exalt it as his ordering principle for being alive. Taking a day off can be nice for him; the meaning of life does not disintegrate as soon as the disciplinary structure is removed. He doesn’t panic like I do when interrupted at the desk, because you can’t interrupt something that isn’t sacred. Free time does not provoke an existential spiral. For me, anything that isn’t quantifiable productivity can only be construed as procrastination. There’s no “life” that is not a means to an end of — ?
Over dinner, which we have tacitly decided is a meal I do not eat while sitting at the computer, A and I have conversations about the meaning of work and why we do it. Lockdown has given us all this time to talk about how we spend our time. I maintain that there is work and then there is work — there is the thing capitalism makes me do to feed myself, and then there is the thing I do because it gives my life meaning. I’m a writer; my work is supposed to be meaning-making, so often these overlap. But I have to believe I’d do the latter kind of work no matter what. Of course, as soon as I say these things, the distinction between types of work dissolves into a sea of Right Reasons questions.
I.e., Would you truly work if you didn’t have to? How do you differentiate between the work that is sacred and the work that is profane? Is any work sacred under neoliberal capitalism? Is there such a thing as Labor of Love that has not been recuperated? Where did you get this Protestant work ethic; you’re a Jew? What’s really the driving factor, artistic expression or desperation for recognition? Couldn’t you find meaning in something less excruciating? What would happen if you took a day off? Why, and what, are you always counting? Where is pleasure? Are you squashing all the pleasure out of something that you really do want to do, just by dint of counting it in the form of reps? If it’s what you “want” to be doing, why does it feel and look so much like punishment?
One night after dinner we watch my favorite childhood movie, The Princess Bride. In one scene, the princess’s true love, Westley, is being tortured by the princess’s evil husband in a dedicated underground chamber. Westley is laid out on a rack called “The Machine,” a device with special suction cups that suck out future years of the victim’s life, causing excruciating pain. The machine whirrs and Westley writhes on the table, while the torturer observes his responses dispassionately and takes notes. “I’ve just sucked one year of your life away,” the torturer informs Westley after the first bout is over. “What did this do to you?” He asks earnestly. “Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity.”
I’ve always identified with the torturer as much as Westley. The torturer is a sadist, but he is also a scientist who has spent his entire life inventing this evil device, and he genuinely wants to quantify what it does. Posterity is an inside joke with myself: when I’m really struggling to get something done, I tell myself, “Remember, this is for posterity.” So I take a quick look at Instagram and then I prostrate myself upon The Machine.
One way to make sure I’ve done my reps for the day to keep lists of all my tasks. Everything goes on the same list because everything has to get done. Shower, eat, write a friend, write a colleague, talk about my feelings, call my dad, write an email, write an essay, write a diary, write a new list of tasks.
Something on my list that is not work, but that is on the same list and so has become ontologically flattened into work, is to record a video message for my friend’s birthday. Given the quarantine situation, her kind husband has invited almost 100 people to upload pictures and videos to an app where she’ll be able to watch them on her birthday. It’s possible to see what other people have uploaded so far. Before recording a video, I watch some of the other video messages. One of our mutual friends has made a lovely one: she’s sitting in a bathtub and extolling the virtues of the birthday girl, whom she dubs “The Queen of Pleasure.” I smile. It’s true! This friend is wonderfully adept at enjoying life. She knows how to live in a body in time, how to maximize joy as its own end, and I dearly love this about her. I get emotional thinking about friends I haven’t seen in so long, who are all Queens of something. The Queen of Finding the Hilarious. The Queen of Even Keel. The Queen of Gathering Us Together. The Queen of Optimism and Ambition. I must be a Queen of some kind too, I think. What Queen am I? The Queen of Time Management. The Queen of Third Draft of an Essay. It is I, The Queen of Reps.
Joy in a certain type of work must be a timeless thing. At least it was timeless, before work was stolen from us, so maybe it’s not timeless after all. That would have been the kind of work that is about the perpetuation of life. Reaping the hay, feeding the family, reproducing ourselves and each other. Tending the garden. Taking care. That is not the kind of work that is easily countable as reps, although people — such as my influencer — have found many ways to commodify it. Women were made to do most of the labor-of-life for the last few centuries, so maybe there is a reason I dislike uncountable care work, favoring the numerable kind with accolades.
My mom, a professor at a big Midwestern university, says that her greatest challenge is teaching undergraduates that learning doesn’t have to be a miserable chore. She wants them to understand that work is not the opposite of entertainment. She wants them to experience joy in reading, writing, and thinking instead of feeling like that’s what you have to get done so you can go to the movies or a kegger. But then, my mom also complains that she puts so much energy into teaching, unlike her male colleagues, and that her teaching work is never fully appreciated. No one is counting her hours.
I take a break from writing this to look at Instagram. My influencer has just made a video where she describes herself proudly as “really crushing it” during lockdown. She says we need to give ourselves credit when we’re doing well. I tap through to a series where she asks people to post their “smallest wins” of the day. Think of your smallest win today, then think of something even smaller.
What does it mean to win? She doesn’t say. The implication, I assume, is that life might be a rat race but that we’re only truly in competition with ourselves. Winning at life is nothing glamorous — it’s just about getting better in small ways every day. Getting better means being healthier and less miserable? I can't help but think that the concept of winning seems to counter what it describes, since you can’t actually beat yourself unless you are also beaten.
My small win today is my only win today, because I don’t know any other concept of winning: I worked and then I worked out, even though I didn’t want to. But then I see that lots of the small wins people are posting in response to the influencer’s story are things like taking a shower and eating a healthy bowl of organic grain. So winning, or at least small winning, is about not working? It’s about self-care?
Instagram-style “self-care” is for the rich and white, even the influencer is woke enough to know that. Self-care is something you pay for. It’s reproductive labor you do for yourself, because you don’t have to do reproductive labor for anyone else instead. But if I stopped looking at Instagram I would have time to take a shower. I’m a well-off white woman and my boyfriend is making me dinner in our nice apartment from the groceries we paid to have delivered. Maybe I could construe not taking care of myself as an act of resistance.
I used to fantasize I was Kurt Vonnegut whenever I worked on fiction. He was my favorite author, whose strict writing schedule is well known. He took reps very seriously because he was concerned with posterity. But then I read his biography and I had a hard time maintaining the fantasy. Turns out the reason he was able to lock himself in the study and clack away on his typewriter for several hours every morning is that his wife was making food and taking care of his children and answering his letters. During his sanctified writing hours, nobody, not his wife, not his three biological children, nor his three adopted children — whom he chose to adopt —were allowed to knock on the door.
A often brings me snacks while I’m at the computer. He might kiss my cheek, but he doesn’t say anything because he knows I get agitated when interrupted. I reach blindly for the carrot stick he’s placed beside me. I realize he’s done the dishes and swept the house while I’ve been emailing. I worry that I’m winning at being Kurt Vonnegut
One of my friends used to have a shitty boyfriend who always insinuated that she was lazy for not working enough. “It’s true,” she told me, “it’s not like I work very much. But I’m making enough money to live on. So, what’s the problem? I don’t get it. I thought not working was what we were working for.
I’ve had an autoimmune issue for at least 10 years. It was finally (sort of) diagnosed a few weeks before quarantine. The verdict: I have lazy lungs and I haven’t been getting enough oxygen this whole time. In January a doctor gave me an asthma inhaler, an allergy pill, and a few nasal sprays, and within weeks my debilitating pain and fatigue became, miraculously, infuriatingly, confusingly, suddenly, manageable. Ironic: While the world is ailing and my city is dying, I have more energy than ever before. I marvel at the extent of my newfound ability, my changing limits. My max five reps become 10 become 20. I always wondered what I’d do if I were suddenly able, and here I am, #blessed with this energy and this privilege, this time …
When I was in my final year of art school, depressed and trying to finish my thesis exhibition, I called my dad to complain about how everyone seemed to be doing less work than me but making better art. I spent most of my time in my windowless studio agonizing and doodling; outside, the Good Artists were chain-
smoking and chatting. I’d make 100 drawings or whatever, but invariably their work would be cleverer and much cooler. “Well, honey,” my dad told me, “some people are geniuses, and the rest of us just have to work harder.”
One of my teachers required all her students to spend 40 hours in the studio each week. She’d clearly read that Malcolm Gladwell book. Just show up, she impressed upon us, even if you don’t have any ideas, because that’s the only way something will happen. You have to be there when the inspiration hits. The more you sit there trying to work, the more you’ll eventually get done — a variant of the classic “ass-in-chair” writing advice. Or a variant of the motivational gym poster: “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.”
Some of my classmates were probably geniuses. Others managed to parlay the genius myth to their advantage. Others were just rich or from famous families, so it didn’t matter. Others were ahead of me in a different way: they understood that creative work also happens when your ass is not in the chair and they saw no purpose in self-punishment. And others were probably working as hard as I was and just not making such a big deal out of it. They realized that artists are not supposed to look like we’re toiling this hard. Our labor is supposed to be mysterious exceptional labor, in service of making exceptional timeless objects, etc.
In retrospect, I’m guessing we all felt bad about how much we were working or not working. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the 10,000 hours rule is just another weapon for individualizing our pain. We’re millennials and artists; we've always known meritocracy is a farce. But we never figured out how to redeem ourselves beyond work, and we experience our feelings of failure in isolation. We don’t know how much we’re supposed to work, how much we’re supposed to seem like we work, how much we’re supposed to “enjoy” work. Do What You Love is an even more insidious farce. We experience our small wins and our big losses alone. Hoarding them, then belittling them. Nothing we can do is enough but trying this hard is both pointless and embarrassing.
I read a report about the climate. It says even now, in the midst of COVID-19, when travel is at a record low — when humans are doing probably the most we will ever be willing to do to — the results are not nearly enough to make a dent in the catastrophically upward-sloping temperature trajectory graph. And in fact, in some freak turn of events, the global temperature is maybe going to rise this year, because of a decrease in the layer of pollution surrounding the planet, which, despite its toxicity, has actually been helping Earth cool off.
A asks if I want to go with him to the community garden to drop off some compost. We have to take it to the garden now because the city has suspended organic waste collection in order to spend more money paying police to harass unhoused people sleeping on the subway. I shake my head and tell A I want to stay home and write. I tell him I’m writing in my diary, so it sounds like a healthy activity, but actually it’s an article about climate change that I hope gets published and paid for. After he leaves the house, I spend an hour wondering whether going to the community garden is a better use of time than sitting inside and writing about the importance of community gardens. My ordering principle short-circuits. I take another shower and have a glass of wine. I win.
The documentary Spaceship Earth comes out two months into quarantine. It’s about one of my favorite historical utopias, Biosphere 2. In the 1960s, a group of performance artists and counterculture enthusiasts got together and started the Theater of All Possibilities, an art-
theater-business venture that would last decades. Funded by a billionaire oil magnate, they first built a ship and traveled the world, buying land, constructing a hotel, holding theater performances, and documenting themselves. Their collective work culminated in the 1987–1991 creation of Biosphere 2, a giant glass structure in the Arizona desert. The biosphere contained a closed-loop life-support system, which eight people lived inside for two years.
Biosphere 2, resembling a Bucky dome crossed with a Victorian greenhouse, was equal parts performance art, science fiction, and science project. To create its internal ecosystem, the biosphereans first traveled the world collecting plant and animal species they chose to populate their world in captivity. Once inside the biosphere they subsisted (almost) off farmed food and recycled air and water, a feat intended as the first ever dress rehearsal for a sustainable human habitat in space. They also intended it as a consciousness-raising stunt to spread awareness about the environmental devastation that might someday force humanity off-world — Biosphere 1 being the original planet Earth.
I have been invited to guest-teach a masters class on Zoom about storytelling in times of crisis. The students have seen Spaceship Earth, so we talk about Biosphere 2. I ask leading questions about whether the documentary gives a balanced portrait of the project and its political flaws, for instance, its colonial and biblical undertones. I ask whether anyone feels nostalgic for an imaginary past when utopian thinking seemed possible, at least for some. One of the students points out that it’s hard to have nostalgia for a past where the future was eight white people in a dome filled with exotic species they stole from around the world.
As an assignment, I’ve asked the students to briefly describe a future scenario where the world is still in quarantine, but things are different. Not better or worse, just different. A basic science-fiction exercise to think beyond the utopia/dystopia binary. It seems like most of them have not done the assignment. They have reacted negatively to its implications. The gist of the reaction is: How could you ask us to imagine a future? Who do you think has access to the future? You think we get to decide what’s going to happen? Why should we lend our imaginations to the people in command? I can see their faces frowning in the little boxes on the screen. I can’t blame them. I have the same questions.
I think about my yoga workout videos, about the pointedly diverse bunch of yogis selected to be in each class. I imagine a yoga class in a Biosphere. I imagine my living room is full of the plant and animal species of the world, ones I specially handpicked for my quarantine zone. I imagine there are no plant or animal species left in the world except for the ones I preserved. I wonder whether there could be an anticolonial/decolonial biosphere. I wonder whether imagination can be totally uncoupled from prediction, and whether future thinking is always going to be in the service of power, or whether it’s possible to imagine a future in a way that can’t be instrumentalized. Welcome, yogis.
One student brings up her favorite moment from the Spaceship Earth documentary: when one of the biosphereans calls her therapist from inside the dome. Frozen inside her insular, fake-
natural world, she casts a line outside — she makes contact with Biosphere 1, to ask for psychiatric support. It’s funny, because I’ve also described that same scene to my own therapist. I’ve told my therapist that ever since she and I have had to stop meeting in person, I feel like we’re living in different biodomes. I’ve spent several sessions with her talking about pandemic and climate change and Biosphere 2.
In one session, I ask her whether I talk about politics too much in therapy. She says that in classical psychology, too much talk of politics is supposed to be interpreted as an avoidance tactic. But she has come to believe that not mentioning politics in therapy is the real avoidance tactic, especially right now. How could we pretend there is an inside without an outside? How could the global not be the personal, the geopolitical not be the psychological? How could the pandemic, which has changed time and the future, not change my time and my future?
After they survived for two years, the biosphereans left their habitat. Steve Bannon bought the whole complex in the interest of profit-driven research. The Theater of All Possibilities was never allowed back.
Sometimes I take a tiny break from work and go into the other room, the only other room, and say hi to A, because he doesn’t mind me interrupting him. A little visit. One day I ask him if he’s sick of his room. Maybe he wants to switch rooms with me?
Of course, I’m sick of this room, he says. Are you sick of your room too? Yes, I say, but I’m sick of both rooms. I’m sick of room.
We know we need to get out of the house. We rent a car and drive to the beach, to the Rockaways. The shore is cold and windy on the day we’ve chosen, but it’s gloriously empty. The sunlight is yellow in the early afternoon and the pale water dissolves into pale sky where there should be a horizon line. A reads a book and I sit a few feet away, scooping sand with my feet (even though I feel like I should be reading too, because reading a certain number of pages counts as a certain number of reps), and chatting on the phone with a friend in California.
My friend in California tells me that he started quarantining even earlier than most of us, because he had a normal flu and didn’t want anyone else to catch it — a concept that seems like it should be the norm now that we know it’s possible to just stay home rather than go to work when sick — and he’s feeling pretty good about isolation. He attributes his decent mental health to the fact that he limits his computer time each day, holding back his urge for constant updates.
“I was treating my desk like a command center,” he says. “Every few hours I would feel the need to sit down, buckle in, and get all the news. Like I could get some control if I knew what was going on. But I’m not in command of anything.”
I laugh, because I know exactly what he means. But then as soon as we hang up, I pull out my phone and look up the most recent death statistics. I read about a person who is supposed to be in command telling the nation’s citizens to drink bleach.
“Spaceship Earth” was a concept made popular in the 1960s by Buckminster Fuller. It encompasses the idea that Earth is our only survival system and that we are all its crew. We have to work together to pilot the thing — to stay alive. If the metaphor holds today, who is in the command center? It is certainly not I, the Queen of Reps. But if work is not my ordering principle, how will I manage to stay in command of anything at all?
Today, some of the Biosphereans still work together on a farm in New Mexico called Synergia Ranch. The last shot of the documentary Spaceship Earth shows them drinking wine together around a table on the ranch at twilight, laughing and maybe reminiscing. I’m jealous of their ability to reminisce about something. I wonder how they’re doing now, under quarantine.
What a luxury it is to live in this apartment and having all this time to toil with my mind. I wouldn’t be able to spend my time this way had I not had that costly education, the network based on privilege. Posterity is an incentive, but so is the obligation I feel to maximize this silly luck. I keep looking for “good” things to spend my work ethic on.
Because of the autoimmune factor, less on the surface now but still “underlying” as far as conditions go, I’m not supposed to go places full of people or touch surfaces or breathe common air. That means that any work I can do with altruism in mind involves more time on The Machine. I accept that the only way we’re going to abolish a system where people are forced to risk their lives to go to work is for people like me to do work, so here we go.
Some evenings I join a Zoom meeting run by an organization that assists asylum seekers in filling out immigration applications, and I spend a few hours doing reps on behalf of someone else. I listen to the testimony of an asylum seeker who’s endured unspeakable things and I wonder what she thinks of the concept of the future.
Another day I make a countable number of phone calls to elderly people in my neighborhood to ask if they need help and not a single person says yes; I donate $25 to a bail fund; I sign a petition for canceling rent. A and I volunteer to teach a Zoom class to kids who are stuck at home and need edu-tainment. We plan a 40-minute class about climate change, waste, and composting and teach it repeatedly to groups of K-5 kids, who turn out to have an impressive grasp of global warming. Most sessions are full of 10 or 15 students, but due to some glitch in the sign-up system, our final class is attended by only one student. She’s a six-year-old named Dorothy and she’s very shy.
Dorothy’s dad keeps trying to get her to sit still in front of the screen, plying her with snacks and promises of playtime afterward, but he seems harried. While we’re teaching, we can see him in the background doing the dishes with another small child slung around his hip. We feel like keeping Dorothy occupied for a little while is the least we can do. But when we get to the part of the lesson on composting, we ask Dorothy whether she knows what global warming is. She bursts into tears and ducks under the table. I can’t blame her.
A magazine asks me to write a short piece in response to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a series of texts Calvino wrote in the 1980s about the qualities he believes are unique to literature and which will carry us through the next millennium. My assignment is to write about his first memo on Lightness, in which he says you can’t write about this heavy world with a heavy hand; you have to treat the gnarly stuff with delicacy and wit.
I find this 600-word assignment excruciatingly difficult to write. I try to explain importance of lightness, but every word is an anvil. I want to learn this lesson from Calvino, I really do. But I’ve never known how to do anything besides to try harder, hit harder, keep lunging. I sit and stare at The Machine and tell myself to unclench my teeth.
I used to live with a certified genius writer who would spend three days partying and come home fucked up and sleep for 14 hours and then wake up and write an essay with flashes of brilliance that an editor would help get into shape over the course of a few weeks and that would be published to great acclaim on Twitter, all while I was working 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the next room on a single difficult text. We all know someone like this, but nobody thinks of themselves as that kind of person. Is that person “lightness”?
Sometimes I get angry with myself for not being able to produce words and A gets frustrated with me too. He asks whether I really have to work until I have nothing left. He lists my accomplishments. He says he loves my writing but that I can’t be reduced to what I produce. He says I have intrinsic value as a human being.
I nod, but I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I don’t have low self-worth, I’m just not sure I exist. I have to do some mark-making as evidence. But you have evidence, he tells me, and points to himself.
A friend sends me a quote from Ingeborg Bachmann’s book Malina. “I don’t think about growing old, just about one unknown woman who follows another unknown woman. […] I don’t know myself any better at all, I have not grown any closer to myself. I have only watched one unknown woman slide further and further into another.”
Of course, from the perspective of posterity, Ingeborg Bachmann is not an unknown woman. She wrote that book.
I try to take a rest when I start to feel overwhelmed. That’s what the influencer recommends: You don’t have to be burned out to take care of your body. But something strange happens lately when I pause the reps. I get incredibly drowsy and fall into a deep sleep. It feels like I have no choice, like I’m drugged and dragged under consciousness level. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept the night before or how tired I feel. Whenever I decide to stop working, I pass out.
My therapist says this sounds like a traumatic stress response. She suggests I listen to a radio interview with Laurie Anderson, in which Anderson talks about being in a terrible plane crash. I listen to the interview. Anderson says she didn’t stop flying after the crash, but when she gets on a plane now, she becomes catatonic. She’ll get in her seat and be fine before takeoff, but as soon as the engine revs up her whole body goes slack and she sinks into a coma-like trance. “My mind shut down,” she says of the last time this happened. “My mind protected me from being there anymore.”
After I listen to the radio interview, I ask my therapist what is the meaning of life. She says she is not going to give me an answer, not because she doesn’t have some ideas, but because I’m so desperate for someone to tell me that I’ll lunge at whatever she gives me and never let go
When I was sick I had an excuse for needing to rest; when I had a social life I had an excuse to take a break; without these premises I realize the flimsiness of those stopgaps, and the ridiculous impoverishment of a life in which everything not work is a procrastination tactic or an excuse.
I return to my influencer, who I need to believe really does want the best for me. She agrees that I have to put my ass in chair if I’m going to be really crushing it during quarantine. But if I really want to crush it, I also have to get my ass out of the chair and do 500 reps and then drink a liter of water, set healthy boundaries for my relationships, and forgive myself for everything I’ve ever done.
My parents are competitive people. They have the same job as each other — they’re academics in similar fields — which means there is always a measuring stick handy. Work is undoubtedly the family ordering principle and we do not give much credence to small wins. Technically my dad is retired now but he still writes an article or reads someone’s dissertation or gives a lecture every day. Once I asked him what is the meaning of life and he told me learning and curiosity, which I think is laudable and true but which I think is only part of the truth, given the family emphasis on recognition and accomplishments. Life is about the work of meaning-making itself but it’s also about someone noticing that we’re doing all this fucking work. Otherwise does it exist? Do we?
When I call my mom at a given moment and ask how she’s doing, the first thing she usually says is a variant of “Oh, you know, buried under work.” Buried is how she’s doing. It’s the only way to do. She and my dad are often working topics related to ethics and social justice, so there is a moral imperative justifying this work being done. But for my mom, there is an extra moral component because she’s a woman and it was a battle to get where she is, so her success is its own justification. I inherited the embattled feeling of that second wave, even though the battle itself isn’t exactly mine.
The belief that work will be there for me even if all else falls apart is also part of my inheritance. After every breakup or romantic rejection, I call my mom in tears in order to receive her reliable instruction to work through it. She tells me to write about my feelings and to channel my energy into other projects. I must not give up, I must process and parse the mess, I must harvest meaning from it, I must find my way back to myself through laboring by myself. I must gain recognition elsewhere to remind me that I exist, even when there is no lover to assure me. And she’s right: work always works. Work will always take me back.
I write half a short story about a group of office workers living in outer space. There’s nothing glorious about their situation; they’re just working way more remotely than the rest of us remote workers. They’re employed by a software company that has sent a portion of its workforce to space in perpetuity, basically as a publicity stunt. The employees-cum-astronauts have agreed to the arrangement just because having an office in space is more interesting than a regular office.
I send the story to my writing group, which meets weekly instead of monthly now, because we’re all stuck at home, so we have time to show up. The group seems unsure whether the premise of the story is sound. They are not convinced whether it’s plausible that people would sacrifice their whole lives to live in space with their colleagues without a very good reason. The group has a point. There’s a reason I haven’t been able to finish the story. Characters are supposed to have motives: “Give everyone something to want, even if it’s just a glass of water.” One person in the group says the story is an interesting take on quarantine, but that she doesn’t think millennials are interested in outer space. Why would they be, when Biosphere 3 is right here?
One of my art teachers in college sympathized with my inability to leave the studio until I made something good (with no criteria for what that would be). He said the problem was that I couldn’t get out of my own head enough to let things flow. He said I was too worried about what people would think. He gave me some advice, which allegedly comes from Duchamp:
When you first start making art, every time you look over your shoulder you see all your critics standing there and watching what you’re doing. Eventually, if you keep working, you look over your shoulder and find your friends standing there. Then one day you look behind you and find only yourself looking over your shoulder. But finally, one day, you look behind you and see nobody there at all.
I have never been able to verify that Duchamp said this. But I get the lesson, which is that it takes a lot of time to learn to rid oneself of other people’s opinions and voices and create something that isn’t about pleasing anyone or getting attention. The lesson is that a true artist makes work for no one else but — no one? Posterity? The lesson is that good work comes from within. I used to find this a helpful image, but now it creeps me out. Who is this person with no body behind her? One unknown woman slides further and further into another …
I don’t think the influencer has the same goal as Duchamp. She wants someone to be looking over her shoulder at all times. And here I am, anxiously looking. One day she posts a quote that says: “We don’t need to come out of quarantine skinny, we just need to come out alive.” I nod. I’m grateful for this post. I really do not feel like doing any lunges or squats right now. I should rest and unplug … I should step away from the Machine … I should indulge in some organic grains … this is me, listening to my body and being kind to myself … this is what it must be like to know what the ingredients for a good life are … the right way to cope … Then I flip to her next post. It says: “There’s no right way to cope.”
What is “cope”? Is it the same as “exist”? To exist, you need an ordering principle, similar to what the influencer calls “priorities.” Here are some priorities — work, money, posterity, love, self-care, saving the world, fun. However: If I don’t have time to do all these priorities before dinner, I’m going to have to figure out how to rank them, that is, how to prioritize. But this is impossible because all of them are necessary to be a person who exists.
Incredibly, some days I feel like I almost get the balance right. Giddy: I’ve done enough work of all kinds, real and recreational. I’ve attended to all the priorities. This is what winning feels like! The healthy butter! On those days of success, I fantasize about going on vacation. Maybe I’ve “earned” a holiday!
The allure of vacation is slightly different during the pandemic; it might also be a misplaced desire for “a time when everything around us wasn’t dying.” But when the fantasy hits, it hits hard. I just have to say the word “vacation” to A to get us going.
Sunburn, he says.
Fruit, I say.
Hot, overripe, fruit.
Fruit that we eat from each other’s hands.
Reading all day and falling asleep in the sun.
Lemon trees. Sweat.
We smile. Then one of us points out that we have everything we need and that missing vacation because of the pandemic is really a very pathetic thing to complain about.
For me, the fantasy has always been the point anyway. The possibility of exit. In truth vacation scares me, because on vacation, time slides toward death without any notches to help a person keep a grip. One feels a moral imperative to “not work” on vacation that can be very oppressive. What if one gets an idea? What if one feels the need to make a mark on life while everyone else is playing bocce? What if one wants to play bocce and realizes one never wants to go back to work? One gets so drowsy in the heat.
An artist friend of mine is having difficulty being productive in quarantine. We talk on the phone about how stagnated we feel, no matter how much time we put in. She also has the added distraction of motherhood, because she had a baby last year. Do you think you could ever be happy if you stopped doing work completely to just be a mom? I ask her. Of course, she says, and I’d love it. But I’d have to kill myself.
When I was very young, I believed that all my thoughts were being recorded somewhere in a giant book, and that when I died the book would be given to me to read in the afterlife. For this reason I tried to think in third person, past tense: She looked across the room and saw the dog lying under the tree … she didn’t want to eat dinner but dad said it was time to eat … she was sleepy that day … it seemed fun to her … so that it would read like a story when it was all put together someday. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I know I was very afraid of dying and that I could only imagine my own death if I knew my whole life would be safely preserved in a book.
At some point, I realized nobody was going to write this book for me, and that any evidence of my existence is going to be of my own making. I realized I have no choice but to try to make it, even though it is never going to be as sublime as the book of all thoughts.
I, the Queen of Reps, sit at my desk cranking out words, take a break to kneel on the floor next to my desk and lift my leg a hundred times, then back to the desk to eat some calories A lovingly puts within my reach. I take a shower and tell myself it is a Small Win. I walk from one room into the other room and back again. I search for a new ordering principle. I find none. I’m on a spaceship but I’m not in the command center. Is there a command center? Just another room. This very room. Luckily, when I entered the room, A was there, backlit by sunshine with a book in one hand, his uncut quarantine hair spiraling into fresh curls, watering the plants …
Elvia Wilk is a writer living in New York. She is author of the novel Oval (Soft Skull press, 2019) and her work has appeared in publications including Frieze, Artforum,Bookforum, Granta, n+1, The White Review, BOMB, Mousse, Flash Art, and Ssense.
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