Nonpartisan Zen Arcade

It’s a stressful time in the world, so we reached out to some of our readers and contributors to find out how they’re using tedium to keep sane. It helps.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: Hi, I don’t know if you heard, but today is going to be the day where a lot of tension gets worked out at the polls in the United States. Building up to this moment has been particularly heavy this cycle, just as it was four years ago—arguably moreso. And when things hit their crescendo four years ago, I came up with a piece that offered alternatives to the political noise that the evening promised. I wanted to do that again this year, but rather than just post about a bunch of things that I personally found enjoyably tedious, I tried to open things up to readers on Twitter, some of our fellow writers, and elsewhere. Today’s Tedium takes a step back to talk about tedium. Because, right now, tedium matters more than ever. — Ernie @ Tedium

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How Tedium’s many contributors are surviving the pandemic

Over the years, Tedium has featured a wide variety of voices that have covered all sorts of things through this newsletter, from R. Stevie Moore to vintage robots.

Some of them write for the newsletter regularly, while others have made an appearance or two and moved on. I thought now would be a good time to reach out to see how many of them are collectively staying tedious, and here’s what oddities they had to share. Read on:

Play Meter

Michael Bentley: Play Meter Magazine

I’ve recently taken to reading vintage copies of Play Meter magazine. This was a trade publication for the coin-op / arcade industry dating back to 1975. Several issues are available on the Internet Archive.

Unlike other game magazines of the era, Play Meter was written for adults. It likely has one of the only “serious” contemporary reviews of all-time arcade classic Robotron (“a well-designed game”). Of course, being written for arcade owners means that the review detracts points for “‘flaky’ CMOS RAM,” not something most gamers would care about. You can find the full Robotron review, along with delightful ads for “Tokens Tokens Tokens,” here.

David Buck: Jazz fusion

For me, it’s learning new things on the guitar, writing about weird things or working on plastic model kits. Mostly, though, I’ve been listening to more music than ever these days. Sometimes, it’ll be an old Dr. Demento Show, a Frank Zappa concert or a Masayoshi Takanaka LP. But lately, I’ve been listening to more jazz fusion than anything where I’ll often study the songs and proceed to play along (poorly) and once in a while, I’ll be in the right key!

Karen Corday: YouTube candle expert Drew Yauch

To me, there are few things as soothing and soporific as listening to people who are extremely passionate and knowledgeable about a niche topic talk at length about said topic, particularly when it’s a topic about which I know and care very little about. My gold standard for this is the YouTube channel of Drew Yauch, a man who knows everything there is to know about candles. Yauch was a candle wunderkind; he started his channel as a precocious tween and in 2012 was featured on the extremely anti-relaxing and usually mean-spirited Tosh.0. Tosh was not great to Drew, unsurprisingly, and I don’t recommend the episode. I do recommend Drew’s now vintage in-depth guide to proper candle care; his recommendation to always smell the lid of a candle before buying it as opposed to the candle itself has saved me from buying some bad candles during my perhaps twice yearly candle shopping expeditions. Best of all, today Drew is all grown up with his own probably very fragrant place in Pittsburgh and seems really happy and still really into candles as well as all things scent. It has done my heart good to watch Drew grow into a confident adult who has remained true to himself and his love of candles. I have listened to his recent hilariously deadpan account of blacking out and buying thirty Bath and Body Works holiday candles several times over the last few days and it’s the only thing consistently keeping me calm, relaxed, and laughing. Thank you, Drew.

Andrew Egan: ANSUL fire extinguishing system

The “Ansel system” is the phrase Anthony Bourdain used for a savior and scourge of commercial kitchens in “Kitchen Confidential”. His “Ansel systems” tended to activate during dinner rushes. Chefs commonly ran around kitchens to fan flames. All to prevent Bourdain’s “Ansel system” from doing its job.

The ANSUL fire extinguishing system (an example of which is shown above—with the good part starting at 4:01) is effective for its purpose. The unintended consequence is thousands of dollars in revenue can be lost due to an inexperienced line cook and a poorly placed sensor.

When an ANSUL system activates, a dispersed sulfur dioxide compound ends any immediate hope of continuing the dinner rush, while fouling up the entire space something fierce. It’s no wonder top kitchens designated deputies to stop such an event. Better to let the place burn than smell like rotten eggs. On the plus side, burning reclaimed wood smells like a great BBQ pit.

I should have made Ernie’s life easier. Something about screensavers or that novelty mouse pad company with a billion dollar IPO during the dot com boom. (I made that last one up. Probably true, right?) In any case, I really hope the chefs are focusing on dinner and if the ANSUL system activates … Sigh … then that’s 2020 apparently.

Tabletop RPG

A sample of the Tabletop game Fiasco, which has a very complex system of play.

Calvin Kasulke: New tabletop RPG systems

The problem with productive distractions like cooking or cleaning is they fail to take up 100 percent of one’s mental capacity; unwanted disturbances, such as “memories” or “thoughts,” can still crop up while, say, cleaning a trout. Unacceptable. So my counterintuitive relaxation strategy is to overload my brain at about 115 percent of its standard capacity while still convincing myself I’m “having fun.” In my experience, this is best accomplished by trying to learn a new tabletop RPG system.

Even if you’re already an old hand at Dungeons and Dragons or Monster of the Week—or if you have a difficult time convincing your friends to play any game where they might encounter an elf or a werewolf—there are still plenty of non-traditional TTRPG or story game systems to explore. Here are some of my favorites, in ascending order of difficulty to learn:

Happy reading.

Yuri Litvinenko: Reading up on Nintendo DS “Tag Mode”

Some games for the Nintendo DS handheld had a “Tag Mode,” a local wireless mode which let people playing the same game exchange bits of info as they passed by each other. It was first done in software for Nintendogs, a virtual pet simulator produced by Nintendo’s Hideki Konno. But despite the game’s popularity, it wasn’t until Dragon Quest IX by Square Enix when the mode became widely popular—especially in Japan.

One of the people captured by the Dragon Quest tag craze was Hideki Konno’s own child. While playing the game, he asked his father to bring him to crowded places “even though he hardly ever wants to go shopping with me,” Konno said in an Iwata Asks interview. “You wanted him to do that with a game that you had made,” he told Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s CEO at the time.

For the successive Nintendo 3DS, the company made it possible to exchange bits of in-game info from up to 12 games simultaneously—including Nintendogs + Cats and Mario Kart 7 which Konno produced.

I’ve discovered this personal snippet while working on a feature for 30pin, a self-published site I am trying to get on track despite everything. You can check out my earlier story on touch phones here, or follow for future updates if you don’t mind waiting.

John Ohno: Reading in the Bath

Reading in the bath is saving my life lately.

I’ve also graduated from doodling in notebooks to doodling on Post-It Notes and hiding them around the house for my future self.


(Margarida Afonso/Unsplash)

Fahad Sperinck: Knitting while listening to metal

During lockdown, I started knitting while listening to metal. The cognitive benefits of knitting were impressed on me by a course in psychology I was taking when the pandemic hit. You find yourself with bags of free time when you start knitting, time you can use to passively absorb other media—music, film, TV. That’s how I got started listening to and thinking about Carcass (leading directly to my first piece on Tedium). I’m convinced there’s an extra layer of deep cogitation when you’re doing something undemanding that has no competitive element, keeping an open space where the unconscious mind can wander free.


(Charles Postlaux/Unsplash)

Chris Tonn: Driving and reading

Lately, I’ve been breaking the funk of gestures wildly by getting out and driving. Of course, much of my writing is centered on cars, but I’ve found that whenever I need some time to break away and think, some time on the highway is the answer. Driving, while certainly something that requires attention, doesn’t necessarily require all of one’s mental acuities. Thus, I can devote time to my thoughts with minimal distraction—and, if there’s nobody else in the car with me, even talk out my problems aloud.

Further, I’ve been reading—while staying as far away from the news as possible. I’ll read topics far beyond my typical bailiwick, learning new subjects while learning how other writers make their words flow. I just picked up a new book written by a friend, Pete Crozier, called Ten Hundred Hopes. Just published last week, Pete lays out his hopes and dreams for his four children. Pete and I met on the sidelines of a soccer field several years back as our daughters played travel ball together, and I’ve seen the results of his parenting. I can only hope to be as good a dad as Pete is, so I’m trying to crib a bit of dadding skill from his book.

One of the many tedious suggestions from readers: Watching reviews for “As seen on TV” products. Here’s one from the star player in this space, Freakin’ Reviews.

Ten types of tedium that Tedium readers are relying on to remain sane

  1. Washing the dishes. Writer Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings says that, for reasons explained on the site Semi-Rad, that he finds washing dishes extremely calming. “At one point I was a professional dishwasher in a restaurant and it took a few years after that job for the magic to return, but it’s firmly back now,” he writes.
  2. Making soup or chili. Longtime Tedium readers Scott Miller and Mark Wilson both tweeted finding joy in making soup or chili by scratch. “I’ve made 5 pots of homemade soup in October so far,” Miller writes. “Have found there’s something pretty zen in chopping vegetables and making soup.” Wilson added: “I made a lovely pot of cream of cauliflower soup last weekend. Earlier in the month, I found solace in a cauldron of chorizo chili.”
  3. Tamagotchi. They may be sort of in the background now, but Maggie Hedrick says that she continues to find endless fascination from the iconic late-’90s toy. “Tamagotchis are still (somewhat) popular in certain circles and have a lot of lore/background info and are more complicated than people realize,” she writes. “The ‘good’ ones never made it to America/English—LOL.”
  4. Playing MMO games for non-combat reasons. Rather than spending time trying to raid dungeons, Tamra Heathershaw-Hart has found the idea of fishing in World of Warcraft to be a nice zen-like experience. “Seriously, I have multiple characters and whenever I’m stressed I log on and fish,” she writes. “Other folks are running dungeons/raiding and I’m getting achievements for how many fish I’ve caught.”
  5. Watching YouTube reviews of “As Seen on TV” products. Lucas Miller, a former coworker of mine, introduced me to a subgenera of YouTube I did not know was a thing with this one. “My favorite channel and gateway to this world is Freakin’ Reviews, but the YouYube algo has started to feed me others in that genre and subgenre,” he writes. Nearing half a million subscribers, Freakin’ Reviews is a revelation if you’ve ever wondered whether these bizarre products featured on TV were actually worth your time.
  6. Making espresso on the stove. I am of course a coffee nut, but I’ve never made coffee quite the way Rachael Berkey describes in a tweet: “I now take a lot of pleasure in my stove top espresso maker. She’s an almost daily star of my InstaStory.” I can only imagine what I’m missing.
  7. Magic Erasers. “I’ve rediscovered the Magic Eraser, and find cleaning random things (walls, pans, spots on the floor) calming,” writes longtime newsroom pro Julia Haslanger. One thing I learned as a result of her bringing this up: The Magic Eraser does not use a chemical process to pull up stains, but is rather a result of friction. (At some point, I will need to write about this, of course.)
  8. Learning new pen and paper RPG rulesets. Given that Calvin kind of covered this above, it turns out this is a surprisingly popular topic based on the fact it also came up here. Writes Aram Zucker-Scharff: “My collection of core rulebooks basically doubled this week as I’m digging into the fascinating rule set from Apocalypse World that has been adopted by a ton of people lately.”
  9. Fancy butter knives. A Twitter user named @wilycoldcuts fittingly writes: “I have a Scandinavian butter knife that I enjoy. It’s quite dull, but it completely transformed the way I butter my toast.” To find such value in a butter knife, it must be special.
  10. Genealogy work. Reader Terry Janas says that, beyond his interests in re-ripping his CD collection into FLAC format and maintaining his video game ROM databases, he’s found enjoyment in genealogy: “Working on my own personal tree, transcribing/indexing genealogical documents on FamilySearch, visiting local cemeteries, and contributing to FindAGrave.”

An ode to Phish’s pandemic playlists

In hunting for people to fill out this wonderful crowdsourced issue, I thought of Josh Sternberg, who’s the editor of the Media Nut newsletter, one of my personal favorites of the newsletter genre. I’ve known him since my Tumblr days, and he’s always had sharp insights about the world around us.

(He’s also looking for a gig as an editor at the moment—and if you like what he does, you should hire him. He’s quite good.)

His insights were too good not to share separately, so he gets his own section. Here were his thoughts on finding pandemic zen in Phish:

For me, it’s always Phish (or Phish-related). When the pandemic started, the band, which is a perennial road warrior type band, was sidelined like everyone else. So to pass the time, and give their fans some happiness, they started something called Dinner and a Movie. Each Tuesday, the band would stream on YouTube one of its shows (it‘s been recording its concerts for a long time) and have an accompanying recipe that a band member enjoys making. After a few months, though, the band stopped DAAM. And then its lead guitarist, Trey Anastasio, entered into a 9 week residency at The Beacon in NYC. Every Friday, Trey and his side band perform with their backs turned to an empty 2,984-seat theater. It’s beautiful. I watch with my wife and dozens of my Phish-fan friends who congregate on Twitter and in a special Slack channel we created. It’s both a 3-hour escape, and a small sense of normalcy.

Look, this year has been an immeasurably difficult year for a whole lot of reasons—both in the air and on the ground—and my toolkit here is obviously focused on one thing: counter-programming.

I’m sending this way earlier than I usually do because I know that whatever happens over the next few hours or the next few days, you’re going to need something else to focus on if things don’t go your way with the U.S. election. Or even if they do, and the pace of change promised by the folks who win doesn’t happen quite quick enough.

We’re, simply put, in the thick of it right now culturally. And that means facing difficult situations and states of affair that can challenge norms and our ability to manage those norms.

It can get hard sometimes to get past the doomscrolling and, say, research some vintage operating system or dive into some technology history, as I might do to bring some tedium into my own existence. But it’s necessary, even as things happen with which we may only have the slightest amount of control over them individually, even if at scale, we can have a broader impact.

All this is to say that, amid chaos, remember that self-care still matters.

In times of turbulence, a little tedium goes a long way. Hope you find your own zen.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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