Ikea Shelving And The Impossible Pursuit Of Perfection

by Bethlehem Shoals

For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone out of my way to enjoy eves, precipices and the part of a roller coaster right before that first drop. Even though I hate everything that comes next — and in the case of holidays and other special occasions, I bore easily. I just love the anticipation. Still, the night before my second book came out, all I could think about was my fucking record shelf.

Let me backtrack on that one. The book isn’t really my book. It was a group effort that includes contributions from 12 people. Said book has been on sale as an Amazon preorder for months now, which means I’ve been monitoring my ranking and delighting at the slightest blip. Anything to feel something. And, while this title didn’t officially hit stores until today, it’s been available at some retail spots since the weekend, indie and big box alike.

So, anyway, it’s not exactly accurate to say that this book is coming out. Whatever, there are no lightning bolts anymore — only low, mounting growls and guerilla armies. I am objectively aware that very few people in this line of work get to put out one book, much less a second. Still, I knew that when I woke up in the morning, my nebulous career choice of “writer” would make that much more sense. If everything goes well, I’ll feel like a public figure for a couple of weeks, maybe even to the point where I pretend I’m getting sick of it.

But the anticipation: As a kid, I always had trouble falling asleep the night before my birthday, or my brother’s. I don’t know why the Jews decided that ritual waiting around should take place during the day, thus making it that much more mundane and altogether void of suspense. I have never once thought, “What if I get hit by a car this afternoon and don’t live to see this Pesach?” Going to bed before a birthday was a leap of faith, a long, dark journey into presents. Sometimes, I would clench my eyes shut, open them up, and convince myself that hours had passed. Maybe this is a time-honored Christmas tradition, but I’ve never heard a carol about watching the test patterns on the UHF at 4AM.

That’s why last night, even more so than usual, I cursed the day this record shelf was born. I might even include it on my enemies list, if only I could find the right stationery. My wife was watching Frederick Wiseman’s Model, which seems just about perfect for the scene, and all I could do was hammer away at a piece of writing that, admittedly, is fueled primarily by nervous energy. Just not the right kind. It’s the stuff that builds up in the gas tank, and then one day causes your entire engine block to collapse.

The record shelf, like most record shelves, is an Ikea Expedit. If there is a record shelf in your place of living, and it doesn’t look like it was ripped out of a seventies rec room or an eighties coke dorm, it is most likely an Expedit. It’s all but unavoidable, totally ecumenical, as likely to be filled with thrift store rock or an invaluable stock of sealed raers. It’s unavoidable, axiomatic, and with good reason: it’s nearly perfect. Brute function with a dash of form, the Expedit outstrips its native brand and all the prejudices that Ikea brings. Picking one out — you have your choice of three colors, last I checked — is like a christening for a new place. Ever since I moved to Seattle, though, my Expedit has been trying to kill me. Tonight is one of those nights.

I buy records. I don’t own thousands of them, but I’ve gotten to the point where I think nothing of dropping $100, even though I absolutely SHOULD be thinking about that: my salary comes from writing about the NBA on the web. Reissues might as well not exist for me. I have an iTunes full of albums that I would gladly drop $100 on, even though I already know them inside and out. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a collector, because that implies that I’m a well-oiled connoisseur, or the kind of bright-burning wreck who sleeps in a pile of vinyl. I’m a music fan who discovered a hobby better for me than smoking or pills. I’m working on a theory about hobbies: they are a form of sublimation, or a window into the unconscious, like what kind of porn your browser cache holds. Above all else, though, they are just trivial enough to remain socially acceptable.

We look for pasttimes that simultaneously bring out and bury the worst in us — and if we’re lucky, amplify some of what makes us good, too. Sports fandom certainly falls in this category. I’m fairly sure that my rifling through piles of records, in search of damage that may or may not have occurred within the last three days, has eclipsed all good sense. But it’s laughable, not troubling. Unless, of course, there’s a deeper lesson here, and my record shelf and I are in the process of unlocking some important truths about the universe — truths far more important than a silly second book.

The problem with a perfect invention is that it presumes a perfect world all around it. A well-behaved, orderly set of parameters, just waiting to be screwed up by this or that intruding body. What happens, though, if the world around it fails to hold up its end of the bargain? Gravity, and the ground, are more fundamental to human experience than the exact color of the t-shirt I’m wearing. When you put a shelf into room, you do under the assumption that the problem will come from the accessory, not the room itself. Seattle is a wonderful city and my apartment is cozy as all get-out, but here, I’ve learned how things can go wrong from the ground up.

The Expedit faithfully stores, and protects, however many hundred records you place in it. What if, though, the walls around it were bent and uneven? Then it goes from a lifesaver to a death trap. You get a gap between the wall and the shelf that allows for jackets to get hammered down into the floor. Every couple of months, I realize this about my apartment, and worry that I’ve destroyed scores and scores of perfectly good corners. Corners are something to be preserved. It’s sort of a competition, but more generally, sharp, shiny things wear their newness as identity.

That’s what I’m doing, rather than eating a good meal and pondering my uncertain future.

Except, I tell myself, it’s only natural for things to wear out with age. The record itself, and the cover’s faces, these are forms of damage that are just fine with me. In fact, trauma usually finds a way to blend into this process, smoothed out over time so it looks like more like a story than an exclamation. That’s how scars do. It’s also a fair description of my walls. Not how they got that way, or what they look like, but how I’ve worked them over in my mind.

A few months ago, dragged by a friend to Barney’s annual denim sale, a salesperson tried to explain to me that the ridiculously overpriced jeans she had talked me into buying could be aged perfectly, but that perfection itself would be imperfect, organic. It would be a function of human error, and how sweaty I could stand the jeans being. Whatever perfect was, it was imperfect, and imperfect perfect was marred by imperfection. The ideal of living was to commodify it, then pretend you didn’t do so. You might as well have never bought the jeans, or the $100 record. Everyone is against you, but it’s a good thing.

Though that might also explain why I can’t quite realize that I’ve got this book coming out.

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com and a regular contributor to NBA FanHouse. Pay attention to his book and FD’s art emporium.