Us, Interrupted: How Writer Charles Yu Is Adapting To COVID-19 With His Family
Charles Yu is a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose writing has appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, including Slate, Esquire, Wired, and New York Times Style Magazine. He has also written for television, including HBO's Westworld. Yu's newest book, Interior Chinatown, was released in February 2020. His first book, How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, was named a New York Times Notable Book and listed as one of the best books of 2010 by Time magazine.
Here, Yu shares with us how he and his family are adapting to life during COVID-19: with exercise, getting outside, and maintaining connection with loved ones online, as well as the challenges of self-care during this difficult time:
What was your life like before we learned about COVID-19, in terms of your self-care and maintaining a sense of well-being?
It actually wasn't that different from my life now. Since 2014, I've been writing full-time (after having been a lawyer for many years), and although I have worked in a number of TV writers' rooms (for the past couple of years, I have been lucky enough to be writing scripts in development), I have been working from home.
My day-to-day routine is get up, walk my dog, pour coffee, and write. I tried to exercise at least three times a week, either a class or a 3- to 4-mile walk. My wife ordered some home exercise stuff (resistance bands and floor sliders), so we can try to get workouts in while isolated at home.
Before COVID-19, what did you most struggle with in terms of self-care?
I was not great about sleep; I wouldn't get enough. I'd stay up late and get up early.
If you can remember, where were you when you first learned about COVID-19 as being a real threat to us in North America? What were your initial impressions?
I was in NYC with my wife for my book launch in January, and I'd get updates from my dad, who was keeping on top of the news coming out of China. It still felt abstract, and so far away, but by February when we were back in Southern California, the news kept coming and getting worse every day. My wife and I would talk about it endlessly, trying to reconcile all the different reports and opinions about what things meant, where we were headed.
We were starting to get the feeling that it was going to be big, and yet, for a week or so, we continued to live our normal lives. My wife went to Costco on a Monday and stocked up, and by the end of that week, we started seeing photos of all these panic-buyers and shelves being empty. And then last week the announcement of schools closing. It was a gradual drip of dread and anxiety, and then it came all at once.
What sorts of things have you put into practice now, from a "public health" point of view to help lower the risk of COVID-19?
On March 13, we went over to a small dinner party at a friend's house, and then starting the next day, March 14, we have been voluntarily self-isolating. We haven't left; my wife has gotten really good at grocery delivery apps, and I've played a lot of catch with my kids in the middle of the cul-de-sac, so anyone walking by is several meters away. We FaceTime and Skype with friends and family. When we take walks, we cross the street to avoid people, which goes against basic notions of courtesy and felt rude at first, but now it feels normal.
How has "self-isolation" or "social distancing" affected your sense of well-being? This includes physically, emotionally, and your relationships.
The main thing is the psychological impact: There's a weird dissonance of doom and gloom on the one hand—sitting inside most of the day, absorbing news. And then you go outside and the sky is blue, actually more blue because there isn't as much smog here in Southern California.
It feels like work doesn't matter as much—and yet I'm more productive in terms of writing and reading and thinking than I have been in a long time. It's made me slow down and take the time to dive deep into a book, to take half a day to read a novel and then turn to my own writing. Before it would be hard to have the luxury of so much uninterrupted time.
I've also reached out to so many people whom I haven't talked to in a while. I feel guilty and fortunate that my work hasn't been as affected as many others (so far, anyway). It's hard to think about all those millions of kids who can't get their hot meals from school. I have tried to be more thoughtful about my daily interactions with others online and more grateful that my family and I have the necessities.
What have you most struggled with during this time?
That psychological impact and feeling of "it's never going to get better." My sleep still isn't great, but it's getting a bit better. My diet has been OK, although I'm definitely doing a fair amount of stress-eating of carbs. We're trying to make sure our kids get enough exercise and don't absorb too much of the anxiety of their parents.
Do you have any ideas, resources, tips, tricks, or advice that you've put into practice to optimize your well-being and that you'd feel comfortable sharing with readers?
Making sure we get outside at least once a day. One benefit of living in the suburbs: We can get sunlight and fresh air and not worry about running into a ton of people as soon as we step out our door. We've been spending a lot more meaningful time together as a family.
What have you learned most about yourself (and your family, if you choose to share) during this time? How do you believe you have grown/will grow through this?
I've learned my wife is definitely the one who keeps us all alive. This is true in normal times; it's especially true now. Also, how important the fundamentals are: planning, routine, consistency. I didn't take it for granted before, but these basic things are so key to having a good state of mind and staying healthy, and it all feeds into itself.
Any piece of advice, a quote, anything motivational that you'd like to share for our readers?
I reread Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel over the weekend. It's set in a world where a plague has wiped out something like 99.9% of the Earth's population. One of the characters, who lives in a now-defunct airport in Michigan with a couple hundred other remaining humans, creates and curates a Museum of Civilization in a SkyMiles Lounge, filling shelves with objects. There's a line:
"He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required."
It might seem like a very scary book to read right now, but for me it's exactly what I needed. It's an exquisitely written and a compelling story but also one that inspires a deep appreciation for so many things we normally take for granted: our technologies, our creature comforts, our systems and institutions, and each other.
What makes you most hopeful right now?
The idea that there are really hardworking and smart scientists and doctors who are working on this to help us. What brightens my day is reconnecting with people and remembering how decent and caring most people are.
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D., M.H.S., C.P.H., is an epidemiologist, physician, and writer. Kalaichandran graduated from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a master's in Health Science, received her M.D. from the University of Toronto, and completed fellowships at the University of Arizona and the Munk School of Global Affairs.
She has additional certifications in public health from the National Board of Public Health Examiners and humanitarian assistance from the Harvard Humanitarian Institute. As a speaker, Kalaichandran has been invited to present for wide-ranging audiences, from Stanford University's MedX in Palo Alto, California to South by SouthWest in Austin, Texas.
Her research interests are primarily focused on the use of complementary health approaches in children (and the perceptions of efficacy and risk), pediatric food intolerance and allergy, and the role of hospital organizational culture as a determinant of well-being and productivity among trainee and early-career physicians.
As a regular contributor to the New York Times Well section since 2017, Kalaichandran covers a diverse range of topics, from health and wellness to medical education. In addition to the New York Times, her award-winning writing has been featured in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Wired, and The Boston Globe (among many others). She is a 200-hr registered yoga teacher of both adults and children and a mindfulness facilitator. Kalaichandran enjoys adventure, mentorship, recipe experimentation, practicing yoga and mindfulness, voraciously reading, and advocating for a better world as she divides her time between New York City and Toronto. She is currently working on her first book.