Self-portrait as unproductive machine

By Tran Tran


The hands of the clock strangle my neck. Each hour, a rueful sigh.

I haven't done anything good today.

People enjoy your being, says my therapist, as much as your doing.

Last night, I googled, “What does it mean to just be?”

The night before, I spent three hours watching YouTube videos about celebrity couples, then guilt-tripped myself into sleep.

Where did time go? Those precious minutes, tally marks inside the skulls of our hurried bodies.

If only I had enough time

to forgive myself.


The way time's vocabulary shares the same tongue as that of money: spend time, waste time,
save time, use time, pay time, manage time. How rarity powers our psyche.

You must work hard when you young, says my father. His default mode: an expiration date looms.

The present tense never stops churning.

More for less, or doom.

The way wanting drowns our minds

High levels of productivity lead to high levels of savings, which leads to high levels of investment, which leads to high levels of growth, which leads to more—1


The root of “productive" means “fit for production."

Hey, I once knew how to be fit for production. As in, how to follow instructions, to be alike, to be liked, to grind, to strive, to race, to ace, to chase—

As in, I once knew I deserved to be loved.

These days, I’m too tired to catch up with the future.


The way “break” conveys both a need for rest and a threat of destruction. When I wanted to tell my mother I need a break, did I mean I'm breaking down?

I couldn't tell her either way.

Between my cogs, a ballooning sadness my manual has no name for.

The weekly to-do list stares at me, blankly.


To be productive, says my friend, is to feel a sense of relief. As if we all live in a pressure cooker,
heavy-chested, pressed for breath.

Last time I checked, I was still functional: Despite three sleepless nights and a sudden crash, I completed two deadlines, smiled twice per week and woke up on time for breakfast.

Still, I haven't produced anything today.

Instead, I dreamt I once had bones. They followed the rhythm of the rising sun, shifting sand, shining stars, drifting water. Time seeped through me—a lived melody.


Where do you feel most alive in your body? asks my therapist.

I don't know

how to be-

at tomorrow's undertow. Look.

A cavern of tick tock rattles inside my chest.

1 This quote is taken from the article “The Wealth Of Nations Part 2 The History Of Productivity”, published on (6/25/2014).

Headshot of Tran Tran

Tran Tran writes in the muddle between English and Vietnamese. A graduate in Sociology, Tran has nurtured her poetic voice through workshops with The Root Slam, Winter Tangerine, Grubstreet and the Speakeasy Project. Her poems have appeared in Salamander Magazine and Ghost City Review. Outside of poetry, she dabbles in songwriting, hosting open mics and dancing in nature. 

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