by KARA VANDERBIJL
Even on my best days I am a series of repetitive gestures, an assembly line that finishes the evening in pajamas on my apartment floor, up to the chin in chocolate milk. These gestures are a hodge-podge of embarrassing human habits and internet inside jokes. Lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t press snooze but in this defiance to laziness I am regular. I look at my bowl of oatmeal in the morning and feel the contents of my belly shift low on the grade. I suppose it makes sense that in the morning, when I am least conscious, I should brush my teeth in the same tired circular motions. I’ve perfected these gestures down to the very minute in which they are performed, so that I can continue sleeping in my brain while darkness lifts off the city and traffic picks up.
My street smells like bacon when I step out the front door because the breakfast joint on the opposite corner just opened for business. The same two gentlemen sit on the same two seats in the train and talk (presumably) about the same facts. Why do I take pleasure in these things? Isn’t this the very stuff of ennui, the boring picket-fence existence that can only culminate in divorce, disaster, and early death by artificially-sweetened diabetic coma? I am an unabashed creature of habit — why try to make something “better” when it is already so very good? — which may have something to do with my deeply structured days, down to moments of calculated madness.
Some of what gives people the deepest physical and psychological pleasure comes from repetitive motion. If you start rubbing your eyes right now, I guarantee that you won’t stop until you have fallen asleep or died, whichever comes first. Should I even mention the complex bodies of flavor that explode in your mouth the more you masticate? And sex, of course, the moment of orgasm almost overshadowed by the pleasure of repeated friction.
I have to believe the Ancient World had some way of duplicating their pleasures, mirroring their experiences, revisiting emotions. What is catharsis but the repetitive performance of profound fears, meant to move the audience into some sort of controlled, miniature insanity? The oral tradition was simply a jury-rigged copy machine for cultures that had not yet developed toner. Still, the ancients’ collective memory was vast. What would it have been like to live in a time when you were never guaranteed to see something more than once? (Including your best friend, who may at any point be carried off by barbarian hordes.)
The invention of the VCR hastened the advent of cultural immortality. Not only did it become a way for parents to perpetuate an already overly-long and embarrassing childhood (especially in front of high-school crushes, college friends, and eventual love interests), but its crowning glory was without a doubt its ability to rewind the magnetic tape inside. Within seconds, you could return to a past sequence of frames and watch it again. (This process is also known as how I ruined my Anne of Green Gables box sets within a few years of obtaining them.) Before the cassette tape there was no such luxury; once simply had to be enough.
When I was a child and briefly insomniac, my parents used to come into my bedroom and rub my back gently while I waited for sleep. The gesture was incredibly soothing and during these nocturnal visits, I couldn’t go to sleep because I wanted to enjoy every minute of the back rub. Waves of panic would wash over me, in rhythm to their sleepy hands, when I remembered that they would eventually tire of soothing me and return to their own bed. This worry made it impossible for me to fall asleep.
I had similar phobias about my favorite foods, whenever they were served for dinner either at our home or in a stranger’s. I would watch over the bowl or platter like a hawk before the meal to make sure nobody snuck a handful or a bite before everyone had sat down, before everyone had a fair chance to get their share. I would eat the food as quickly as I could, so that I could get a second helping before anybody else. My greatest fear was that I would miss out on the repetition, that the last spoonful would be claimed by another person.
Fear of missing out on something, whether it’s a material good or an experience, can cause repetitive behaviors. Addiction seeks to replicate a past euphoria, a previous sequence of frames that existed before the hangover or the overdose or the alienation. Be kind, rewind. Believing that there is not enough of a good thing to go around is a particular neurosis, one that thrives on habit, on going through motions, on completing a set of rituals that lead without fail to a specific result. Repetition ensures pleasure because if I’ve already experienced it, the memory of it will infuse every subsequent reinterpretation, whether or not I actually enjoy these simulacra as much as I enjoyed the original.
If I can repeat any pleasure at any moment, pleasure becomes repetitive. I am less sensitive to it, and it eventually morphs into the very stream of mundane events which caused me to seek it in the first place. I am still not sure whether my enjoyment of something increases the more I am exposed to it or the more I must anticipate it.
My coworker and I have begun to act out popular .gifs in response to questions or else, sometimes, within the stream of normal conversation. It is not an affectation, precursor to Tourette’s or even particularly clever. The .gif embodies and tests this debate; it takes plot elements, personal confessions, and pretty much any other weird thing you can find online out of their original context and places them on the surface of our collective consciousness. Are you happy about the donuts your coworker brought today, the aesthetic cocktail you’re about to enjoy, the concert you went to last night? Then scream “Bees!”, obviously. Navigating the train platform during rush hour calls for none other than this gem. It's not that difficult to say no, as long as you have a good sense of humor. Everything is so beautiful; so, so beautiful. Honey, puhleeze. Naturally, it's all about the queen.
And the list goes on. Almost nothing is spared the .gif treatment. Is it better to know a .gif’s original context? Does it make the joke funnier? A .gif is telling us part of a story; it would say more, but it can’t go any further. Complex context is reduced to a single movement. Like a broken record, it’s caught on a portion of a song, catering to attention spans the length of a blink, a scroll down.
How many hours have I spent clicking Refresh, picking at the virtual scab, waiting for something new to pop up and occupy me? Concerned as I am to miss out on something big, I have not yet realized that the reward is rarely worth this endless repetition.
"Kronos" - Keaton Henson (mp3)
"In The Morning" - Keaton Henson (mp3)