NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language.
I wrote recently that boredom is a problem for the brain to solve. The essay below was the fruit of a period of protracted boredom I suffered about fifteen years ago, during my college Christmas vacation. I’d gone to visit family and friends in my hometown, and after everybody else left to go back to school, I was alone for awhile—with no PC, not enough books, and nothing to do. Of course I didn’t have a cell phone yet, but more to the point there was nobody to call. I didn’t even have the family cat, Mulla, for company; he’d fallen down dead on Christmas Eve, right in front of the tree.
To occupy myself, I wrote what follows, by hand, with an actual pen and paper. (It’s nominally a letter to my brother Geoff, but of course it’s actually an essay; this was long before the blogosphere existed.) I’ve edited the essay just a bit here, mainly to give the albertnet reader some essential background information.
Fall of the House of Albert - January 9, 1991
Let me describe this day, this ninth day of the new year, a Wednesday, to you. Outside, stale grey. Not unusual. The temperature, a frustrating thirty- eight degrees. When I phone up the weather service I have to sit through the “Time & Temperature Advertising can work for your business! Call...” plug before getting the statistic. It’s frustrating because it’s too cold to ride comfortably, but not cold enough to give me a good excuse not to ride. Tell you the truth, my legs haven’t yet recovered from whatever I did to them: trying to pretend I could dance, I guess, but also some kind of overuse, or maybe it’s actually atrophy.
Truth is, I haven’t been all that motivated, to train or anything else. Remember the David Letterman cat poster, designed to present that cutesy animal theme coupled with a sobering dose of reality? A cat lying there with the caption, “Since they neutered me, I haven’t felt like doing much of anything. Life has lost all meaning; I wish I were dead.” Well, I haven’t been neutered and have no suicidal tendencies (not even an album) but I can relate to wanting to lie down all the time for lack of anything better to do. Today I’ve alternated between reading and sleeping.
I only have two books with me (and no library card, and no money for anything new). I’ve been reading Thurber, which is fine, but his essays are like snacks—great a few at a time, but nothing to binge on. I’ve also got a Nabokov book, but my brain is still too sore from finals to concentrate that hard. Actually, my brain’s probably just gone flabby. You know, da break, it a makes ya dumb, see. I jes set heah tinkin’, but none a dem brain waves an’ shit is movin’ up deah, ya know?
Plus, there’s nobody around. Friends and family have scattered. My dad is always either at work or at his lady friend’s house. I am the sole occupant of this house—which, when it was my childhood home, used to bustle with six loud people. Now it’s as silent and depressing as this grey day, this stale winter. It’s a stark physical embodiment of sheer nihilism. It’s an existential nothingness which can inspire nothing but a sudden split from big extra-credit words into the almost nostalgic “BLAH! JUST BLAH! ALL OVER THE PLACE SPACED-OUT BLAH! BLAH!” (Why “nostalgic”? About a decade ago our friend’s mom totally lost it over my her son’s chronic mental and physical disorganization and berated him with these words, right in front of us. Her strange outburst was immortalized—her words thrown on our pile of go-to utterances alongside quotes from “Breaking Away” and “Mad Max.”)
To catalog the blank slate (and empty chalk tray) of my environment, I will describe the dining room table I’m sitting at. A few pairs of scissors, I don’t know why. Piles of newspapers. There used to be a plastic basket for these in the corner, but after last trash pickup, it disappeared. And really, I can’t compel myself to care. This table is big enough for eight; that leaves plenty of room for shoving crap down to clear eating space for a maximum of two people. So the newspapers stay, along with a lot of other shit that is depressingly stationary, like this crappy stapler, mauve in color (who chose this and why?) with which, in an idle moment of fidgeting, I inadvertently punched a staple right through my thumb.
Nothing moves here. When I first arrived here for Christmas break, the house was strangely unoccupied. It turned out my brothers, to punish me for getting a ride from the airport from a friend instead of letting them pick me up, had vacated the place. I walked from room to room looking in vain for somebody; it felt like a ghost town. Now that feeling has returned, magnified by my newly acute perception.
Cat-food lids, two, and pennies, three; an undoubtedly dead Radio Shack D-Cell; a Realistic Weatheradio. All worthless, or worse. Cat-food lids: no more Mulla. Pennies: get these trinkets the hell out of here, they’re hardly reminiscent enough of money even to remind me how broke I am. The Weatheradio: useless in this drearily monotonous cold-and-grey. A foil-wrapped blob of some fruitcake or something everyone—I mean, my dad and I—are too lazy to eat or throw out. My dad even told me the other night, “Oh, here is some cake you could eat.” I could have said, “Dad, hello, where have you been? That’s weeks old, and nobody knows what it is or where it came from!”
But why shatter the tranquility? My dad’s mind is elsewhere, totally oblivious to this house and how it seems frozen in stone. A piece of coat-hanger has been on the floor, mere inches from the trash can, since I can remember. I could throw it away, but why? What difference does it make if it’s on the floor or in the can? Pop wouldn’t notice. I’d still see it in there a week from now. I could gather up these newspapers and put them in the corner, but they’d still hang around, like an odor. Besides, if I cleared off the table, think of the horror of that wide, empty expanse of wood, removing what little sign there is that this house is occupied at all. A huge cleaning operation of the entire abode would turn it into a magnified doll-house, except for all the weird crap I dare not move, because it could be involved in a supposedly active project. I’m talking about the Subaru manual, the drill, the Dremel tool, and other assorted tools on the funky white table adjacent to the dining table.
Wait, there’s something else on the funky table, unrelated to any project: an envelope labeled “Cartoons: Seen by J & boys 1990.” Who else is supposed to see it? Is some stranger going to wander in here and say to me, “Excuse me, but I see from the envelope label that I haven’t seen these cartoons yet. Mind if I peruse them awhile?” I really wonder about the label. Why give the year? Does Pop expect a natural disaster to bury this place in thirty feet of stone and ash, and he wants archaeologists digging it up centuries later to be spared the trouble of carbon-dating it all? (They might find the foil-wrapped mystery-cake, miraculously preserved and mere inches from the remains of my body, and create a touching tale of how I was about to take it to my grandma when suddenly buried alive.)
Maybe Pop wrote down the year because he realistically expects the envelope to sit there for years to come. The Albert Museum is taking form before our eyes! I have a vision of affixing a neat label to everything here: “Mauve stapler, 1990.” “D-Cell, 1989.” “Weatheradio, circa 1991.” The pennies lie about their chronological relation to the House of Albert. The newspapers, on the other hand, fix a moment of this house’s life—or indeed, its death—in history.
[In retrospect, it only appeared the house was dying. This was a transition period, when my dad’s attentions were elsewhere, and he was basically living at his lady friend’s house, so my childhood home—“2380” we always called it (and still do)—had become a mere staging area. This changed mightily and the house became a home again, to my brother Bryan’s family, a new generation of Alberts who surely still think of it as their childhood home.]
The really weird thing about all this stillness is that it isn’t entirely unnoticed by Dad. Almost, but not quite. The things I’ve described thus far will doubtless remain for eternity. Yet anything I leave around disrupts Pop’s sense of order. It’s as though any stapler or D-Cell or drill that has been stationary long enough has rightfully earned its place. Or maybe it becomes invisible; it eludes my dad’s perception in the same manner as the rotation of the earth. Continuity creates the illusion of motionlessness.
So powerful is Pop’s perception of foreign objects in his domain that he will even request, on occasion, that these objects be removed. The other day, or maybe several centuries ago, he asked me to remove my Christmas presents from the far corner of the living room where they were tucked away in the intersection of fireplace and piano.
Never mind that in the big scheme of things, those presents are the most transient objects in the whole house. Imagine a time-lapse movie of this house—you know, like the ones National Geographic makes by filming a glacier for ten years and then playing back the footage at high speed so that the whole decade can be watched in 30 seconds and we can see a glacier in motion. My time-lapse movie would focus on this living room. It would capture the top of the harpsichord, which is covered with heaps of catalogs and junk mail, the highlights being a 1990 DAK Industries catalog and a birthday card from dad’s sweetheart, J—.
Let’s say the filming spans a period from Dec. 1, 1990, to Jan 31, 1991, and is then condensed into twenty seconds of viewed footage. People in this movie appear for such a short time they are subliminal. Other objects, such as the DAK catalog, appear throughout the video and can be carefully examined. Exactly four seconds into the movie, the birthday card from J— magically appears near the center of the screen. Nothing changes for another four seconds; then, my Christmas presents suddenly appear in the lower left-hand corner. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I defied Dad’s concern for clutter and didn’t move the presents until I left for California. That means the presents would remain in the picture for seven seconds, and then vanish again. In the remaining five seconds, the DAK catalog and the birthday card remain, undisturbed.
The movie isn’t very interesting until we consider the sequel, in which we extend the time-lapse photography to encompass the span between Dec. 1, 1990, to Jan. 31, 2001, and is still condensed into twenty seconds. Now, the finished movie is somewhat different. The birthday card appears, for all practical purposes, instantly. It remains throughout the movie, along with the DAK catalog and all the other junk. For all the careful watching he can muster, the viewer is totally unable to spot the Christmas presents left by me in the lower left-hand corner. Only with the state-of- the-art video freeze-frame technology (which is really quite advanced in the year 2001!) can he finally spot the presents without going back to the original footage.
I will ask you to bear with me in one final version of this time-lapse-movie allegory. Let us assume we have a much bigger budget and have cameras positioned all over the house. Let us also add sound. Imagine that a team of skilled technicians is perusing all the footage from a video span beginning the night after my last brother left, Jan. 4, and ending Jan. 18, the day after I’m gone. This movie won’t be quite as condensed, making almost five minutes of viewed footage. You’ve seen, no doubt, time-laps films of something as simple as a night’s sleep, and have almost certainly felt awed at how much goes on during something as simple as sleep. That’s why you’ll be amazed at how little goes on in this movie.
The scene seems to linger on either my bed or the living room sofa. Certain cameras never see anything. The technicians are continually frustrated when not a single one of their cameras picks up any movement at all. The home viewer wants action, damn it, and out of two weeks of raw footage, they can’t even fill up five minutes with anything but sleeping and an occasional meal. The financial backers are threatening to pull out, and perhaps the worst of it is this actor, the star in fact, who keeps complaining, “There’s nothing here for me to do. I can’t get into this role at all ... you could get by with a clumsy actor, an extra. You could practically make do with a mannequin.”
Which I guess is my point. What am I doing here, anyway?