I keep a lot of old papers. A LOT. When our moving van rolled over in an accident outside Los Angeles last summer, some people speculated that I didn’t have enough possessions to make this matter that much. The answer is papers. It’s all (mostly) papers.
Indeed, I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy. I’ve recently been able to do some purges of the really meaningless stuff, such as old receipts and bills, but it’s still pretty hard to get me to cut papers that I’ve taken the time to put pen to.
Often (as with the linked audio clip above), this is the reasonable subject of a small amount of lampoonery. But every now and then, even pre-archivist era, true gems emerge from the boxes and folders that justify the whole project. While searching for Emily’s immunization card last night, she ran across the following:
This document, circa mid-September 2002, was our outline of how to financially survive until October 2002. This crude effort at a budget, made shortly after we’d secured our first apartment, illustrated how close we were to running out of money at the time, especially with the desire to acquire a deftly illustrated “feline friend”. Emily and I remember the ensuing period as the “Month of Ramen”, when we holed up in our house with job listings and hot noodle soup and tried to figure out how we’d spend the next years of our life in the startlingly real world. Despite our concern that we wouldn’t make it till October 2nd jobless, it wasn’t until October 18th that one of us actually secured employment (my part-time job at Chapman).
We never went into debt or had to ask our parents for help. But we sure didn’t know it when we were drafting that document. We had no idea what the future looked like, but it looked potentially bleak. I know it’s no solace to the class of 2010, given how much worse job prospects are in the US now than eight years ago, but it is impressive how well life can turn out despite its scariest early rumblings.
I’m not sure whether I’m more horrified by the idea that we thought $30 could be a monthly cable bill or impressed by the idea that we thought to create this paper in such a forward-thinking light. It seems written for posterity, like some sort of declaration or defining document. Ultimately, I think we were just hoping it wouldn’t be our monetary epitaph.
The moon was crazy full tonight, approaching the kind of round perfection we are taught is never quite achieved in our mortal understanding. It stood as a stalwart reminder of why the energy seemed a little strange, overcharged perhaps. Enough to drive normally friendly rabbits into corners or normally social men into caves. After all, the depiction on the orb is one or the other.
As stated earlier, it was laundry night for me (miraculously, I seem to have not gotten a migraine). I normally sort of dread laundry in the way that I negatively anticipate most chores. They are monotonous, imminently predictable, and often require disproportionate energy and concentration relative to their ultimate value in one’s life. More aggravating than many household chores, laundry cannot be done while listening to a baseball game or music. I mean, sure, one could put a portable music device on and walk around listening, but the only point in having music on during chores is so one can loudly sing along and actively distract oneself. Being unable to do this would just augment the initial frustration of being concentratedly bored in the first place. And Mariners games aren’t exactly on while I tend to do laundry. Doing laundry in primetime is most unrewarding in Princeton’s Butler Apartments, especially at the volume that we accumulate.
Which is why I set out to do laundry at around 1:00 this morning. Normally there are at least a handful of other people around at most hours, but tonight there was just a lone soul packing up the last of his load as I arrived. I recognized the exhausted frustration on his face, the look of the last few items that one knows one should fold thoroughly, but one is becoming sloppy as real fear sets in that one might not be able to finish the laundry before needing to retire to bed. One starts bargaining with oneself about the safe and friendly patrons of the campus neighborhood laundry room, how no one would disturb the clothes if the last of them were just left in a neat unfolded pile, if just… one… more… shirt.
And I started to haul bag after bag into the room, unloading each completely before trudging to the car for the next one (I usually walk between our apartment and the laundry room with each independent bag, but I didn’t feel like traversing the distance for all five bags at a surprisingly cold 1:15 AM, so I drove the Prius circuitously around the complex to a prime parking spot in front of the fluorescent palace). The guy’s eyebrows were raising by the time I’d retrieved the third bag, but he was just about on his way at that point. Thus he missed the fact that my dirty clothes filled all eleven functioning washing machines in the room.
I mused at what might happen were the one other person in the complex who had been clever enough to wait till the middle of a Tuesday/Wednesday night to do their massive laundry to waltz in and drop their jaw at the row of churning tumblers. But said individual never showed, the product of academia demanding at least some sleep from those trawling toward finals. I noted that I had forgotten my book, jogged home for it and a few insurance quarters, and returned to settle in for the work that was barely underway.
The real pain of laundry, of course, doesn’t hit until the dryers stop spinning in their slow, tilty dying drones. At that point, it’s time to make an effort at folding and sorting, lest the five bags sit in hopeless mussed clumps at home, waiting for the cat to separate Emily’s shirts from my socks (we’ve done this before and it’s not worth it, trust me). This is what takes the real energy, mind-numbing and unsophisticated as it may be, and it comes when the enthusiasm for the project is at its lowest ebb. There will be no more time for reading, because no matter how fast one sorts, each dryer will stop before the last dryer’s load is sorted. There will only be time to try to think about something less dull than a catalog of all your doggone clothes, while still maintaining the focus to fold each neatly and sort them efficiently.
What I noticed tonight, amidst all this mental wrangling, is how much more relaxed about the whole thing I was than I am when I choose more popular hours for the task. Granted, I’m almost never there when it’s packed, but only once have I done the overnight thing and it was earlier in the night and closer to a weekend, ensuring that others at least darted in and out throughout my time in the room. There was something remarkably freeing about knowing that no one else was going to walk in, no one would eye my underwear or try to make awkward conversation (though this never happens in Jersey, frankly, despite being a staple of doing laundry in, say, the Bay Area) or give me a sort of abrupt head-nod if I said so much as “hi” (this is more the Jersey way) or create otherwise vague unpleasantries.
And then, of course, I started mentally composing parts of this post, pondering what details to retell of the laundry scene and how to convey my precise perspective on the chore. And I came back full circle to this bizarre conclusion that I couldn’t wait to tell a bunch of other people how much better I felt when I was alone.
And yet I relished the telling and the knowing that lots of other people would read this. Every bit as much as I dreaded the possibility of another person walking in.
Was this some grand contradiction in my perspective? Was I a hypocrite, or merely crazy? Could I really be thinking and believing both of these things simultaneously?
The answer struck me relatively quickly, to my general emotional relief. It’s not that the people coming in would be strangers and those reading generally aren’t – after all, some strangers do read this blog and I’m happy for the fact. And theoretically someone I know could’ve entered the bright hall of cleanliness and I’d still be less than enthused.
It was about free will.
See, every time you come read this blog (unless you’re subject to some Clockwork Orangeian experiment involving my impact on the unlidded human psyche, in which case my apologies), you do so voluntarily. And not just voluntarily in the way that people pledge money for their co-worker’s daughter’s fundraiser run, but legitimately of your own volition. You have chosen this activity over any other you could do with your time.
Granted, you might be bored or on Internet-autopilot or whatever, but your choice to interact with my perspective is about as unfettered as they come. You’re reading because you want to.
Meanwhile, entrants to the laundry room are certainly signing up for a date with Maytag’s finest, but by no means is my presence part of the equation. Sure, they understand that other people could be there and probably will, but it is no part of what they are volunteering for (again, unless – and this scenario is slightly less outlandish than the Clockwork Orange thing – they secretly seek out human contact in every trip to clean their clothing). Any interaction they have with me is functionally involuntary. A byproduct at best, but most likely an annoyance.
And that’s all there is to it. There’s something fundamental in my perspective that has always dreaded interactions with people who in some way do not desire that interaction, however casual or essential it might be. It’s not some secret desire to be liked or to have everyone want to interact with me, either, because I do nothing to try to bend these interactions into something enjoyable for others. In fact, I usually end up (less so than in my school years, but still at an alarming rate) making the interaction remarkably awkward, sometimes even by tearing up uncontrollably. This used to be a serious problem of mine in late high school and early college, usually manifesting with convenience store clerks and gas station attendants. These were not people I feared rejection from. I just felt intensely, a priori uncomfortable with the idea that I was abridging their free will so they could interact with me. That they felt obliged to interact with me, but clearly had no interest in doing so.
And I think, de facto, that’s how I see most public interactions with strangers. Obviously there are pleasant surprises sometimes, but generally it’s safe to assume that I’m part of the scenery. And I’d just as soon avoid any pretense or awkward attempts to bridge a divide based on a perception of polite obligation. This is why I got so excited the other day about the opportunity to order pizza online instead of calling someone in person, or why I opt for self-check-out kiosks in stores or movie theaters.
I know the arguments. In the latter cases, I’m helping put people out of work and destroying jobs, thereby eliminating livelihoods! But I would argue no one should have such jobs, and any system that makes us choose between people having jobs that are the functional equivalent of doing obnoxious chores all the time or starving might as well employ no one so it collapses immediately. And in the former, aren’t I making too much out of this whole free will thing? I mean, does anyone really choose anything?
I think this argument, more and more prevalent the more I talk to people, is what I find most disturbing. The idea that our wills are either chemically determined or otherwise imminently influenced to the point of predictability. While my deconstruction of this alleged reality is worthy of another entire, much longer (and less tired) post, I will stab wildly at the concept and accuse it of being one of the greatest threats to our humanity and hope on this planet. And as part of my evidence, I use this Kantian sensation I have about interactions with other people’s free will on a daily basis.
I stress that despite waxing on endlessly about free will for much of my life and being well aware of this phenomenon about my personal interactions, I don’t think I’ve ever linked the two concepts or labeled their connection until tonight in the laundry room. Which means that the reason I was feeling uncomfortable all those years was truly a priori, something I felt and intuitively understood, but could not articulate and was not really cogitating about.
Although the argument now occurs that making this discovery and connection in such a situation is exactly what makes mundane ridiculous chores like doing laundry all worth it. David Foster Wallace would be proud.