How we’re staying motivated, from cat fights to Conan O’Brien

Julia Koh/The Occidental

Living with the coronavirus pandemic poses a constant series of challenges, as days fade together and a return to normalcy appears distant. The Occidental’s editorial board shares some of their favorite inspirational reads and watches, from Dust Bowl biographies to stand-up comedy, to help get you through the pandemic and whatever else life throws at you.

Glennon Doyle

One morning a few weeks ago I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook (probably to ignore the hard realities of the world around me) when a video with the headline “We are in collective grief” made me pause. In the following 10 minutes, author and self-proclaimed “de-motivational speaker” Glennon Doyle put words to the feelings I was experiencing but didn’t fully understand.

“Everyone is grieving the life they had before,” she said. “Don’t add ‘shoulds’ or shame on top of grief.”

It was such a simple statement, but it was the first time I had heard someone explicitly resist the message of self-improvement that was saturating the rest of my social media. 

“Grief is a cocoon from which we emerge new,” Doyle said. “The message that this is a time for hustle might be the ultimate distraction from what this time is really for.”

Since then these weekday “morning meetings” have become an essential step toward starting my day. The balance of gentleness and brutal honesty as Doyle discusses topics ranging from bravery, daughterhood and “real” self-care helps me “feel and be still and crumble” — the transformation of grief that Doyle says is so important. I have realized during this time that I sometimes need words to disappear into and other times need words to point me straight toward my mess of feelings. Doyle’s daily videos serve as a lighthouse, directing me through the fog and uncertainty.

She ends each of her videos by acknowledging that the challenges we are facing are real and that we are collectively strong enough to overcome them. “We can do hard things,” she says so simply — it has become my mantra. —Kayla Heinze, Culture Editor

“The Worst Hard Time”

Lately, while sheltering at home and watching the death numbers add up, I have been leaning into one of my favorite books, “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan. The first time I read it, I passed over the rest of the title, “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” I spent the book frantically worried about all these people, not realizing that Egan had interviewed survivors. This is a pretty embarrassing admission from a professional writer and editor, but the book did come out during a particularly hectic time in my life.

Egan wrote about the horrors of the Dust Bowl in great detail, filled with tale after tale of Biblical horrors — bank foreclosures, crop loss and most dreadful to me, dust pneumonia. 

Out of this came the great California migration, as well as a federal policy on soil management. 

 Every generation has its struggles. Mine saw assassinations of three beloved leaders, the Vietnam War that took our neighborhood boys and a Civil Rights battle, though it can seem ridiculous today that anyone ever had to fight for these rights. 

The world changes and out of every darkness comes light.

When I moved to California, I finally read John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, “Grapes of Wrath.” I’m glad I waited because it took living here to understand the tale of “Okies” moving to this promised land. I hungrily read paid obituaries in the Los Angeles Times of so many regular people whose lives began in wretched hardship and ended here surrounded by sunshine, backyards and neighborhood block parties. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about “The Worst Hard Time” lately because it reminds me that no matter what people tell you about good times ending, hard times end too. —Barbara Thomas, The Occidental newspaper advisor 

“Real Housewives”

Whenever I find myself wanting to take a vacation from reality, I escape to reality television. 

I revert back to watching old re-runs of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. The show immediately takes me to afternoons back home from boarding school, when I’d binge half a season of “Real Housewives of New York” with my mom while drinking hot coffee and eating black-and-white cookies. I’d lose myself in the show as my AP U.S. History homework sat undone in my binder. I was inevitably procrastinating — as many writers do — and finding myself enamored with the clashing friend groups and brutally honest interviews with producers. 

Watching Tamara Judge throw wine on her former best friend or Teresa Guidice flip a dinner table is as entertaining and absurd as it sounds. You watch scenes of women complaining about trivial and pompous things such as how their lunch was cooked or the lack of AC in a hotel room. No matter what city or season, you watch every woman trash talk everyone else in their season in a refreshingly honest way. 

Although the franchise itself is not intellectually stimulating or a cultural masterpiece, it’s the type of television you can lose yourself in. You genuinely start to relate and empathize with the women who have decided to share their lives on television, because as much as their lives seem scripted and fake, there is also an element of raw reality that seeps through. 

For all the cat fights and hair pulling, there are equal amounts of divorces, deaths and financial hardships you see these women go through. Watching the Real Housewives navigate the highs and lows of life grounds me and makes me remember the wholeness of humanity. Despite the shallow and somewhat vapid nature of the gossip and staged fights, it is comforting to relate to these women on some of the very real struggles and challenges they overcome. 

As I continue to try and escape the reality of sharing a small bedroom with my little sister in our New York City apartment, it’s nice to lose myself in the world of lavish dinner parties, excessive shopping and blowout fights. Even if it’s only for a couple of hours. —Elizabeth Brewer, Culture Editor 

Conan O’Brien

The late night show host Conan O’Brien is one of my great personal icons, especially now in our reality sh*tshow. There’s a lot I love about the man, but I want to highlight a few moments from his 27-plus year career.

There’s his final episode hosting “The Tonight Show” in 2010, a role he famously lost after NBC executives decided to oust him from his dream job. What should be a depressing episode instead becomes a celebration of O’Brien’s tenure as host, featuring a montage of antics soundtracked to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” The end wasn’t even the end, either — O’Brien returned later that year with his new show “Conan” on TBS, turning the situation around entirely.

Or there’s the episode “Late Night” from Sept. 18, 2001 — his first after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. From a studio not far from the World Trade Center, a shaken O’Brien delivers a somber monologue in which he expresses his own uncertainties about doing a comedy show amidst a national tragedy.

“I will be very honest with you: I have no idea how to do what we’ve been doing tonight,” O’Brien said. “I have no idea how to do it tomorrow, I have no idea how to do it the rest of the week, I have no idea how we’ll get back to doing this again.”

O’Brien looks like he’s about to end the show at any moment, but he doesn’t. He tells the audience he and the 104-person ”Late Night” crew will keep working to provide some semblance of normalcy. 

“We’re gonna try to do it,” O’Brien said. “That’s what a lot of people here feel is the right thing to do, is to get back, to just try our hardest to move forward and to make sense of our lives at a time when absolutely, absolutely nothing makes sense.”

Then there is the simple fact that what makes O’Brien’s humor work is that he focuses on making others stand-out, whether they’re his producer Jordan Schlansky, his assistant Sona Movsessian, his sidekick Andy Richter or any other number of people he works with. Conan is ever the humble fool, making fun of himself so that others can shine whether he is dancing in the streets of Cuba or delivering Chinese food across NYC.

So when I think of O’Brien, I think of someone who has experienced remarkable lows — existential crises, really — and pushed through. Ultimately, the show must go on. O’Brien’s work offers a kind of life philosophy: to remain optimistic, to find purpose during chaos and to lift others up whenever you can. Even in defeat, O’Brien noted in his commencement address to Darthmouth’s class of 2011, there is something to be learned. 

“Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come,” O’Brien said. “The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.” —Pablo Nukaya-Petralia, Features Editor