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In which John fails to draw circles while discussing the drawing of circles and how to count to 170,000.
The Anthropocene Reviewed:

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

It’s been a bit of a stressful week here, so I’m wondering if we can try some calm, repeated movements.

So I have a long-term plan to draw 170,000 or so circles. I like drawing circles for a number of reasons -- for starters, because it is impossible. The nature of my shaky hand and the writing instruments I use mean that I will never quite draw an actual circle--there will always be something oblong or edged or incomplete in every attempt. One of the main pleasures of doing something over and over again is realizing that even the smallest actions cannot actually be repeated, because each circle is non-circular in its own particular way, just as even though I’ve signed my name half a million times, I’ve never quite done it the same way twice.

In one of the episodes of my podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, I discuss the monumental circle drawings of the Japanese artist Hiroyuki Doi, who began drawing after the death of his brother, because he found that the circles gave him “relief from the sadness and grief.” I also find that repetitive actions offer relief-- provided I choose them and don’t find them too physically or mentally taxing. Of course it’s easy to chalk that up to my having obsessive-compulsive disorder, but studies have found that most people are more focused and retain more information when they are doodling than when they are not.

Now to be clear, I understand that drawing circles doesn’t, like, accomplish anything. I’ve focused a lot of my life and energy around being productive, but I’ve also taken a very narrow view of what constitutes productivity. Like, making YouTube videos is productive, but spending time walking in the woods with my kids is not. Writing is productive, but only if I’m writing for an audience. Email is productive, but Twitter isn’t. When a good artist makes art, that’s productive, but when I make art, that’s unproductive.

But amid all that thinking around productivity, I rarely pause to consider what I actually want to produce: books and videos and podcasts, yes, but I also want to produce joy. I want to produce deep connections with people I love. I need to produce gratitude and hope that can live alongside the worry and fear I also need to produce. And I want to produce some not-quite circles, not least because they expand my definition of productive while also asking me to pay a particular kind of attention. Like I enjoy watching, for example, how even little changes have big impacts on the picture--whether it’s switching between pens or following a circle that branches away from the others.

But there is also something else I am trying to do, which is to understand what 170,000 actually means. Humans in general have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing among large numbers-- like, a million seconds, a billion seconds, and a trillion seconds all sound to me like, I don’t know, very large amounts of time -- but in fact a million seconds is around 11 days, a billion seconds is just under 32 years, and a trillion seconds is 31,710 years. Put another way: ten million seconds ago, my life was basically identical; ten billion seconds ago, Louis XIV was king of France; and ten trillion seconds ago, nobody was king of France because our species probably didn’t exist yet.

Thinking about big numbers that way helps me some, but still, it’s difficult for me to contextualize large numbers. And so I suppose I am making these circles because I am trying to figure out how to count to 170,000. I’m trying to understand just how many that is. This is circle 589. Hank, I’ll see you on Friday.