It is the last day of summer. The neighbor girl has been riding her bike across our sidewalk, back and forth, every day since April. Starting at the first thaw, I’d see her in her hoodie, building speed then slowing to U-turn at the intersection. She clearly wasn’t allowed out of sight of the house. She’d stand, lean on the squeaky pedals, and rock the bike against each straightened leg until she regained momentum.
Variations appeared. By May the dirty mounds of snow melted. While my basil stretched out and the deer retreated up the mountain, she started turning the corner, circling the whole block. Her incessant, slow patrolling, like a skeleton guard or a possessed child, would have registered as creepy if I hadn’t been 10 once myself.
When I was ten, I pulled my t-shirts over a geometry of a clavicle as delicate as my grandpa’s wrist. For a long stretch of my ten-year-old summer I gathered a tape player and a rubbery blue handball, like adults used, and I bounced the ball against the garage door, while listening to Weird Al on repeat. Sometimes my neighbor, Ron, a Vietnam vet who regularly knelt in his driveway welding trailer frames in a shower of sparks, would saunter over with his hands in his pockets to chat.
Summer works like this. Every day small moments cycle like waves within tides, eroding our opportunities on a geological scale invisible from our point of immersion. Days repeat. We swallow the same beers at the same cracked pleather booths with re-drawn constellations of the same friends. The zucchini plump. The lawn grows and we mow it. It’s as if nature meant us to gorge on predictability so by autumn we’re sick. . Even summer flings ripen covertly. Idling together in a bar in June becomes a ritual in July. By August you can trace the intricate histories of a person’s scars, and your pool shots somehow cut sharper lines.
It is becoming my contention that love is built on wasted time. The most meaningful hours unravel without agenda. When we allow ourselves to exhale, attention lingers less discriminately, and we discover complexities that someone with a goal never sees.
As back-to-school sales stripped the aisles of crayons, and the neighbor circled, I sat on the porch. I plowed through Abbott Awaits, by Chris Bachelder, in one day. My knee bounced incessantly, although the only long-term promise in the plot is a birth and the events deliberately involve household minutiae. The book’s short chapters describe episodes in the summer of a young father, Abbott, as he raises a two-year-old and maintains a marriage during the last trimester (June, July, August) of his wife’s second pregnancy.
The book wastes no words—it could be a poem—but Abbott wastes time. In one chapter, Abbott paints a nursery, and watches the paint dry. He cleans up after his two-year-old, makes messes with his two-year-old, cleans up the messes. The days are just packed with quotidian chores.
The book details what David Foster Wallace called the “day-to-day trenches of adult life.” Abbott cleans the kiddie pool. He contemplates the chemicals in his daughter’s food. He unnecessarily irritates his wife. And in these wasted moments, the summer whisks by.
Bachelder, by focusing on minutiae, toys with the rules of plot that have guided Western thinking since before the Iliad. Traditionally, stories hinge on key choices in decisive moments. Readers witness events that alter a character’s future. Because stories orient our perception, we often understand our own histories—and approach our futures—in terms of action.
But in real life, the future also shifts through habits, patterns, through invisible and enormous forces, swelling like tides. In a story, Usain Bolt wins the Olympics the moment his chest breaks the tape. In reality, he wins in thousands of wind sprints, and hack squats, and mornings stretching as dew gleams by the track.
The paradox shimmers and shifts depending on how you eye it. By overestimating the gravity of a moment, I have paralyzed myself over small choices. By failing to respect minutiae, I have triggered cascading mistakes. One summer I worked for a PTSD-scarred Marine so obsessed with details—choices he could control—that he’d worry about the way I tied my shoes.
Finite human perspective lies to us about the relative importance of events—and of our choices. We writhe in the guts of systems we’re too small to see. Philosopher Timothy Morton calls these systems hyperobjects. For Morton, global warming is a four-dimensional object we observe incompletely from within. We can at best hope for partial experience of hyperobjects, like seeing weather instead of climate, or tossing one soda-bottle of what could form a geological layer of plastic.
Abbott’s toddler symbolizes the accretive power of the exceptionally small. She will absorb expectations from Abbott’s attitude at breakfast, and will absorb chemicals from her meal. The days will accumulate, and he knows it. Abbott’s choices, even about how to sweeten her milk, matter.
Early eco-critical novels expanded pollution into monsters, with a Toxic Airborne Event or giant feral hamsters, but Bachelder’s threats require the enormity of time. Trace amounts of chemicals, the book implies, have poisonous concentrations. Abbott’s struggle to envision the consequences of tiny risks reinforces his larger uncertainty about how to approach everyday moments. Abbott’s wife reprimands him: “…it’s difficult to have a relationship with the entire world.” Abbott thinks, “What she means is, Please knock it off. … Live with us, here, now, in this house.”
He’s debating the ethics of attention, which inherently means questioning one person’s influence on larger patterns. Abbott feels vindicated and disturbed to find that his wife is also stashing water in advance of a hypothetical cataclysm. He contemplates the ratio of stolen hubcaps to lost hubcaps that have been propped up for their owners. He considers four-way stop signs. Society is a project of mutual trust, the book reminds us, and it does require effort on behalf of forces one cannot see. To live purely in the moment and satisfy the needs of one’s family is to assume the system works, the economy is fair, the machine is using you exactly as your talents fit.
But to be less than present with a growing child is to waste something vanishing and precious.
Abbott struggles to experience moments of tedium while simultaneously recognizing their long-term gravity. In fact, Abbott often recognizes the context of events only in retrospect, a parallel to the contrast between childrearing’s horrors and that cliché cadence of older parents: “enjoy it now because it goes by so fast.”
Here is one chapter, in full:
Abbott and the Sticky Shit All Over the Steering Wheel Again
Gone are the daydreams of academic notoriety and glistening vulvas and whatever else. All Abbott wants right now—the only thing—is to be knocked unconscious by the long wooden handle of a lawn tool.
Abbott’s chores and frustrations, his small logistical negotiations, drain what little time he has. At one point, while his daughter repeatedly drops rocks down a grate, he concludes, “There is something beyond tedium. You can pass all the way through tedium and come out the other side, and this is Abbott’s gift today.” He’s learning attention at a different pace.
I realized that Abbott Awaits is a summer novel, the same genre as say, Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It’s about imperceptible changes over timeless days. It’s about the chores recreating themselves, nothing shifting except what you’re trying to maintain.
Procrastination is the essence of summer. Bill Murray wouldn’t try to escape Groundhog Day if he were stuck in July. His day is summer’s Platonic ideal. Learn piano, the rest of world stays familiar.
Real summer resembles day after day of circling the block. It’s never piano lessons or library cassette tapes of Spanish words that sink in on September 1st. The moments that collect, when autumn rustles you awake, are hundreds of wrist-dips at the sink and paint chips brushed from old jeans and long sunsets on the porch, unraveling stories, drinking beer.
Abbot Awaits recreates the experience of these sneakily accumulating moments, until, as in any airport melodrama, massive change is both surprising and inevitable. In this case, it’s simply birth—there’s no spoiler. The book is about how you can expect it and still never see it coming.