In Search of Nothing

In Search of Nothing

Image: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)
Year in Review 2019Year in Review 2019Remembering the year that you, me, and everyone we know was canceled. Rest in peace

At the entrance to the park, there was a green wooden sign, seemingly freshly painted, with carved yellow letters that read, “MORCOM ROSE GARDEN.” This is not a particularly meaningful detail, but it seems an appropriate beginning for a story that has no point.

I had come to this garden, a public park in a residential neighborhood in Oakland, California, in search of nothing. I wanted to do a thing without aim. Stepping into the garden, I startled a pair of wild turkeys—their heads snapping to attention, the ruffled, pink flesh dangling over their beaks jiggling obscenely. One of them reared up, opening wide its iridescent wings: flap, flap, flap.

I walked along a cement path flanked on either side by roses the color of creamsicles and bubblegum. Then I turned a corner to climb a staircase alongside a cascading series of pools of water green with algae. Every few steps brought a new, insane variety of acid-trip rose. I resisted the impulse to whip out my phone for photos, and realized there was no way that I would remember all the different varieties or their placement in the garden. The journalist in me panicked; I considered grabbing my notebook and pen, but that would be too much of a “something.” I was already straining the bounds of this experiment by being determined to write about it. How do you do nothing without expecting anything from it?

This impossible, paradoxical idea of pursuing nothing had burrowed into my brain ever since reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. It’s a complex, ambitious, and principled book that has chiefly gotten attention for its critique of social media: Odell, an artist and teacher at Stanford University, laments that “many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily,” that we “submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands,” and that we rely on “communication” platforms that remove context and “reward shouting and oversimplify reaction... having a ‘take’ after having read a single headline.”

But the book makes other, much less fashionable arguments in favor of acts and ethos that counteract a “captured, optimized, or appropriated” existence: bioregionalism (essentially, a knowledge of, and sense of responsibility to, a local ecosystem), meaningful community-building outside of big tech’s watchful eyes, and fostering a sense of historical place (she writes a great deal about Northern California’s indigenous Ohlone people). How to Do Nothing isn’t an anti-technology treatise so much as an argument against the mechanistic, soul-deadening march of productivity. “What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious,” Odell writes.

Odell’s “nothing” isn’t apathy: It’s only within the frameworks of capitalism and the attention economy that, say, developing a familiarity with native plants counts as a zero. She emphatically makes the case for sitting, thinking, observing, and clearing the mind in nature, or in close proximity to it, as a way to “resist in place” (as opposed to running off to a utopian commune, a flawed fantasy to which she develops an entire, fascinating chapter). It can be a way to recharge enough to actually “do something” in the political, activist sense. Odell, who lives in Oakland, also writes about her past-time of bird-watching, whether it’s the black-crowned night herons that sit perched by the KFC in her Oakland neighborhood or the crows that she’s taught to dive for the peanuts she tosses off her balcony (really, they seem to have taught her to throw them).

Odell also writes about her frequent visits to this very garden that I am sitting in. “There are probably a hundred possible ways to wind your way through the garden, and just as many places to sit,” she writes. “Architecturally, the Rose Garden wants you to stay a while.”

Since I also live in the Bay Area, and since I am always looking for ways to exploit my job in the pursuit my own obsessions, I spent weeks after reading How to Do Nothing thinking in the back of my mind about reaching out to Odell, arranging a local bird-watching trip, a hike in the woods, a sit in the Rose Garden, where I would interview her about the book. I realized, though: I didn’t want to get into nature only to talk with her about How to Do Nothing. If felt like a superficial set dressing for a traditional author profile, a cheapening of her thesis into my colorful lede. I didn’t want to talk about the book. Instead, I wanted to do “nothing.”

I’d already experienced how this book could be subtly turned into a commodity, a physical representation of an aspiration, ideal, or trend. The media coverage often oversimplified Odell’s ideas with headline phrases like “against hustle,” “the quest to log off,” and “how to quit your phone and change your life.” When talking with friends, some of whom had already read the book or intended to read it, I noted in my own voice the hint of self-congratulatory proselytizing, as though I were vouching earnestly about a new, life-changing wellness routine. You’ve really gotta try it, this book, you’ll be so glad you did. It made me think of the first time I’d heard about How to Do Nothing: on social media. A friend Instagrammed a photo of herself with it propped on her lap, her forearm creeping into the frame. The hot-pink flowers on the cover matched her sweater.

I considered going to the Rose Garden with Odell and not asking her a single question. I could frame it as a counterintuitive, anti-productivity piece, a deconstruction of an interview. It would be similar to a performance piece about which Odell writes: In Scott Polach’s Applause Encouraged, folding chairs were set up at a vista in San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument. Forty-five minutes before sunset, guests “were ushered to their seats and reminded not to take photos,” she writes. “When the sunset finished, they applauded, and refreshments were offered afterward.”

Maybe, I thought, I could talk with Odell but not about the book, engaging in a conversation without aim, muting the usual journalistic search for a story, an angle, a headline. It would be a nothing article. An article about nothing. When I suggested this to my editor, however, she told me: “Just go to the freaking Rose Garden, alone. Write about that.” I had been constructing half-measures of the thing I allegedly wanted to do, like a solo diner incessantly checking her phone. I followed up with my editors not once but twice: So, you want me to do nothing, all by myself, you’re sure?

It seems I was afraid of nothing.

The Rose Garden stairs opened up to a circular cement terrace and I tripped over my own feet, feeling both aimless and pulled in multiple directions. A woman sat on a bench reading a book with a baby sleeping in a shaded stroller. A chunky, charcoal cat snoozed in a sun-soaked patch of mulch. Reading a book is an acceptable public act and cats are expected to do whatever the heck they want, but my walking without an end goal felt suspicious. I half expected a security guard to materialize out of nowhere to interrogate my intentions. Mostly, my life outdoors consists of speedily navigating a city street, walking my dog at the dog park, or hiking a wooded trail, and it’s always with a clear purpose and destination in mind.

The Rose Garden is an in-between place: in nature, but not really. You can assert your “doing” with a book, a notebook, a camera, a phone call, a pair of gardening sheers—or you can do the “nothing” of sitting or wandering without any reassuring accessories. That wandering, of this small urban garden, doesn’t allow the alibi of purposefulness that comes with a hike. It feels both suspicious and vulnerable: I was open and accessible to the world around me. In the back of my mind, was that classic journalistic crutch: “I’m on assignment.”

I wound my way past the terrace, up along a side path, through some leaning trees, and came back down into the circular heart of the garden, where a series of rose beds create several branching paths. Then I sat down on a bench to take some notes—about the grey cat, the algae water. But then my note-taking started to feel like too much of a something. I put down the notebook and pen, and just sat there. There was birdsong, but, unlike Odell, I couldn’t identify the birds, I didn’t even have the words for the sound: Duck-like? Quack-y?

I noticed a young woman ever so slowly walking the circular collection of flowerbeds, which sits at the center of the garden’s amphitheater-like construction. She swung her feet in slo-mo, like a toddler delaying the march to bedtime, except that this was the opposite of avoidance. Then she completely stopped with her back to me, either looking at something or just pausing to pause. She didn’t stoop to smell a flower or performatively squint at an object of interest. She just stood. Immediately, I thought, “She read the book. She read the book!” It seemed in the moment like the only rational explanation for her behavior: existing in public without obvious purpose. I considered going into reporter mode and walking right up to ask.

Instead, I sat.

Part of why I connected with Odell’s book is that, especially as an East Bay native, I have an abiding love of the natural landscape here: heavily-wooded Berkeley, where it’s illegal to cut down mature live oaks, the thick fog blanketing San Francisco across the way, and the rolling silhouette of the Marin hills with Mt. Tam rising above everything—even the abhorrent Salesforce tower. It is native plants: creamy apricot monkey flowers, turquoise sage brush, and manzanita trees with curling maroon bark. It’s the ever-changing, impossible to describe blue of the Bay.

My husband, who is from the east coast, often teases me about my fascination with the innumerable blues, which shift constantly with the sun, wind, and shadow-casting clouds. While walking our dog at the waterfront, I’ll tell him, “Look at that blue spot right there,” and point intently to a particular stretch of water, like I’ve spotted one of Odell’s beloved night herons. “Do you see, where the grey gives way to green and then to the bluest, shimmering blue?” On multiple occasions, he’s told me, “I think you see colors differently.” I’ve replied, on multiple occasions, “I think you’re color blind.”

As part of my job, I frequently end up talking to people from other parts of the state and country, and sometimes when they learn where I’m based, worn jokes are offered up about San Francisco being overrun by techies wearing start-up branded fleece vests and eating $10 toast. Yes, yes, I want to say, but have you seen Point Reyes? Have you gone swimming in Tomales Bay and had a close encounter with a dozen (totally harmless) leopard sharks? Have you stepped on a decaying seal carcass on a deserted beach and then listened to your scream echo out of place against the ocean and cliffside? Have you climbed through the creeks in Tilden, feeling suddenly shrunk down to the scale of a water-skipper? Have you seen the blues of the Bay?

For me, the suffocating rise of social media and the “attention economy” is inextricable from the tech takeover of San Francisco, which has led to an exodus to more affordable cities of close friends who now chiefly exist to me as Instagram avatars. It’s all knotted and intertwined, meaning that if you tug on one frayed end (by, say, disengaging entirely from Instagram) another thread (relationships with departed friends) is strained. Everything is in tension. Similarly, social media is destroying our democracy, humanity, and brains, but I’m told that my job is absolutely dependent on it.

Doing “nothing,” especially Odell’s nature-based nothing, is a protest against the “attention economy” and all of those impossible tensions. It’s also a way to remember that I still, despite it all, love this freaking place.

As I sat on that Rose Garden bench, an alarm went off on my phone, alerting me that my “nothing” was over: I had just barely enough time to drive through rush-hour traffic and get to daycare for 5 o’clock pickup. I wandered toward the park’s entrance and came across a walkway with a series of decades embedded into the cement along with plaques bearing women’s names. I knew from Odell’s book that these were several decades-worth of winners of the Mother of the Year award, as voted on by Oakland residents.

I slowed to read some of the names until I reached the year 2020 and realized there were blank wooden placeholders for the nameplates of this future decade of winners. Same for 2030, 2040, and 2050. My insides turned to ice and tears came to my eyes. Suddenly, I wasn’t worried about a non-existent security guard interrogating me about my intentions. I was crying in the Rose Garden.

I stopped and leaned back against the walkway’s metal railing, realizing that my search for nothing wasn’t just about connecting with what I loved. The search was unavoidably wrapped up in fears about the future: the stakes of next year’s presidential election and the not-at-all-unrelated rise of influential monopolistic mega-corporations and amoral social media platforms. Maybe most of all, there was the increasingly impossible to ignore reality of climate change: rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, skyrocketing temperatures, severe tropical storms, and, especially in California, out of control wildfires.

Life often feels like a negotiation of time, especially as the parent of a young child, and not just because you do things like set alarms to get to daycare on time to avoid astronomical late fees. There is also the worry—the one that shows up every time that wildfire smoke fills the air here and dangerous fire conditions prompt preventative PG&E blackouts—of my kid not having nearly enough time before this planet self-destructs. Part of the appeal of “nothing” is the illusion of pausing time; not just the constant accounting of it, but time’s ceaseless, terrifying march forward into what currently feels like the predictably bad. “Nothing” can be a form of “resistance in place” as well as a “savoring in place.”

That’s what makes “nothing” so terrifying, too: it’s a reminder of what you love, and what you stand to lose.

Senior Staff Writer, Jezebel



Every year I take 2 one week trips to a lake cabin with no phone, TV or internet..and I do nothing. I sit by the water for hours at a time just looking at things. It’s the best.