Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Creature Comforts: The Traveling Mattress

Bryson and Kalman have one really little big thing in common (is that possible?): SIMPLICITY. This, I believe, is the common thread weaving itself through these two very different works. Yes, we discussed the fact that Bryson’s work is dense: a lot of information as humor and a lot of humor as information. And it can certainly be said that at first glance, Kalman’s work is at times a confusing/bewildering stream of consciousness that seems to harbor more complexity than my end-of-the-semester-brain is prepared to take on. But each of these writers works within the simplistic framework of the everyday. Because the framework is so familiar to us, so utterly and beautifully comfortable, the larger issues Bryson and Kalman present are more readily accepted as valuable. After all, Bryson and Kalman are doing what we do every day: living. So their questions are our questions, right? And their answers to those questions, however different they may be from our own, are worth something, anything… maybe even a whole lot.

I always carry my own bedding. And I don’t just mean sheets and a pillow. I mean an actual bed… well, an air mattress. An explanation would probably be a good idea right now. OK, first of all, I was THAT kid in elementary school: the one who, if invited to a sleepover, feared above all else that she would be unable to fall asleep on a cold hard floor because, well, it’s the floor. You walk on it. You don’t sleep on it. Blame this on my father. No, really. Because he’s the one who yelled at me and my younger sister if he ever found us lying on our stomachs, chins in our hands, in front of the television. “Do you know how filthy that is?” So, really, this phobia isn’t my fault. Fast-forward to college and I’ve only kinda-sorta conquered this fear of remaining wide awake on my friends’ dorm room floors while they snooze feet above me in an actual bed.

My best friend, Abby (the white girl who uses phrases like “I’m gonna be so gangsta”), and I often make weekend trips to the University of Maryland College Park to visit her boyfriend, Bernie. The first time we went, Bernie came downstairs to the parking lot to meet us.

“Hey, Bern,” I said, grabbing my backpack, “can you grab my air mattress?” I swear to God you would have thought I’d asked him to grab my cocked and loaded rifle, squeezing the trigger just to see what might happen.

“Wait… you brought an air mattress?” he asked. I blinked.

“Well, yeah, I mean… what? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because you’re twenty years-old, my apartment is about as big as the backseat of Abby’s Honda, and you’re sleeping here for one night and probably for no more than two or three hours.” For the record, Bernie and I really are great friends. He would do, and has done, anything for me. But apparently a plastic, inflatable queen-sized bed was taking it too far. “Chels, you’ve got to be kidding. And if you aren’t… you should be. You really want me to carry this upstairs?”

Well, yes, I did want him to carry it upstairs. But, long story short. Abby likes to paint this picture of me for all who will listen and she’s so deadpan and serious when she tells this story that it really doesn’t ever get old and I can’t help but laugh: “We go to College Park when Bernie’s having his parties (and he has a lot of them) and here comes Chelsea with her air mattress. And let me tell you, only Chelsea would show up to a black-light party, forty plus people standing around playing beer pong and hooking up and God knows what else, with a freaking air mattress. Most people? They crash on the floor, in someone else’s bed, in the frat house they end up going to, whatever. Not Chelsea. No, sir. That girl comes prepared.”

Now, I could take the time to explain to you exactly why that mattress is so important to have at Bernie’s in particular because if you saw that living room floor, the last thing you’d want to do is curl up for a catnap, but I’ll leave that story for another time. The point is: the mattress, to me, represents all those little things Bryson talks about, all those things (sofas on the sidewalk, anyone?) Kalman finds comforting or confusing or just plain beautiful. It’s funny because you don’t look twice at it, or consider it all that important. But, in a big way, those little things define us. I will forever be The-Girl-With-The-Portable-Bedroom to Bernie’s friends at College Park. Perhaps that’s a little unfair, but it’s the only snapshot they have of me: waltzing into Bernie’s apartment an hour late as always and lugging my air mattress behind me. And for that night, the snapshot is indeed accurate. Yes, I get made fun of for it, but hey, it is funny and I’m perfectly aware that it’s weird. But I’m not too worried about that fact because we can’t help our weirdness factor… that’s God-given and practically unchangeable. I’m okay with that. Bryson takes things, like the breakfast pizza, for example, and magnifies them, mocks them in such a way that we realize something about the things we value: they’re often pretty odd. Or random. Or seemingly unimportant. And yet, we attach value to them anyway because they are distinctly woven into the fabric of the everyday. What would we do without them? Bryson wouldn’t have written I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I can tell you that. Kalman also does this, but differently. Her pictures, her snapshots of people all remind us that we’re connected whether we’re aware of it or not. And why are we connected? Because we each value things that, because of their strangeness, unify us. And, perhaps the most important question, why is that funny? Well, because we strive so hard to be individuals, to be different. So, it’s funny to discover that while we’ve succeeded (Americans have Thanksgiving and Presidents Day and I’m pretty sure Kalman gets more excited about hats than I ever will), we’re never really without the company of others. It’s that weirdness factor again. It separates you from the crowd (no one else brings an air mattress to Bernie’s parties) but it slams you face first into a sort of solidarity (I don’t care how good Abby tells me it is, I will not throw away perfectly good popcorn that’s actually meant to be eaten in order to lick the bag covered in butter where the popcorn pops.) I think both Bryson and Kalman address this issue, unity, effectively. It's so simple. And so big. It should be harder to take for granted, and Bryson and Kalman may have made it so.

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