Compression

Miles Klee
Human Parts
Published in
4 min readAug 27, 2013

A little goes a long way. Brevity is the soul of wit. Less is more. A spoonful weighs a ton. Give it to me in a nutshell. E pluribus unum. Etc.

There’s nothing so big it can’t be crushed into a tiny cube. Compression is nice, but I’m also suspicious of it. Life pounds you into the shape of a sick old person. Why, when I saw a man collapse from a heart attack on 5th Avenue, shaded by trees that border the park, did he clutch his heart, this organ that must have felt too tight already? His ribs drew in, he was imploding, all of him was drawn into a bright nexus of confluent pain.

When I talk in my sleep — and I’m told I do this often — what I say doesn’t make any sense. It has a dream-logic, perhaps, or I’m just mumbling (as I tend to do when awake), or, as I like to imagine, I have pared my ideas to a kind of quicksilver thread, a spectrum not of meanings but the thoughts themselves, which no conscious entity could decode. On the other hand, I also giggle, and am coy when asked what about: “Just giggling,” I have apparently replied. Another tautological fib.

On the glassed-in roof of a Boston hotel, in the midst of a great blizzard, it was warm, there was table tennis and a pool without a lifeguard and tall green potted plants, the heat fogged the windows and then you noticed what was odd: it was like being a figurine in a snow globe, except it was only snowing outside. Our false climate undisturbed, the city lashed by torrents of snow; a tropical bubble, perfect negation of the blizzard, yet caged and somehow defined by the blizzard, that gray howling fact.

Dinner last night, at a new restaurant with small portions. Through the storefront we glanced up into a few apartments across the street. Two adjacent living rooms were partially lit by TVs, and a first impression was readily confirmed: people were watching the same show together, apart. Though the screens varied in size and orientation, it was unmistakable — the occupants even sat staring at the same commercials, unmoved. And still it was hard, too hard, to reconcile the rooms.

Our elderly calculus teacher, Mr. Gulati, was not easily distracted, but late one afternoon we got him to tell us about his life. How could so much history exist in this little man? We listened with a raw thirst. All the while, he was making notes on a transparency, diagrams for the overhead projector. Where he came to the U.S. with eight dollars, he wrote “$8.” When asked how he met his wife, he wrote the word “Arranged” and circled it. Arrows connected his Indian schooling to years he spent in Brazil. By the end, he had summarized decades with a handful of densely symboled sheets, which a friend later stole and gave to me on my birthday. I kept them, until I lost them, in my top right-hand desk drawer, as with any crucial reference volume.

“I always told everybody the perfect joke would be where the setup and punch line were identical,” said Norm Macdonald once, or always. “To get a laugh with the fewest number of words possible” is how Jack Handey described his ambition to The New York Times. Writers of fiction adopt these principles as well: the single-paragraph stories of Lydia Davis and Thomas Bernhard, the minimalism of Amy Hempel and others in the same editorial sphere. But that technique, bitingly deft as practiced by the masters, is disastrous when the author wants to dance around a secret he doesn’t know himself. Sometimes compression is just concision, elision, evasion.

A memorable scene from the film The Abyss: toward the bottom of the ocean, the villain’s toy-like submersible slides over a cliff into a deep, black chasm. It cannot withstand the mounting pressure of all the water above — the glass begins to crack, and as the actor cries out we see, from another angle, the sub’s glass dome cave in. The sound is the sound of sound silenced, but not simply that; I find the sequence horrifying because the man’s voice is not severed, it’s canceled, buried, put back into his body.

Accidents, these accidents where a second or two is endless. Observing paramedics in a hissy rainstorm tend to a man hit by a car, the whole of existence felt closer. So what? I was walking the dogs, and they didn’t like the rain, and they pulled me onward, around the block and home. I’ve tried to write this essay in a single sitting. Failed. There’s more, much more. There’s always more than will fit. This paragraph should stop.

Astronauts report what’s called the Overview Effect, the cognitive realignment of seeing Earth, from space, as a unified system protected by just a tissue of atmosphere. Again, the snowglobe thing. I’ve not been to outer space, but I’m wearing my glasses more often. An optometrist told me I could damage my eyelids by leaving contacts in all day. I’d always hated glasses for clichéd, teenage reasons, but I bought frames more stylish and expensive than usual, and suddenly the drawbacks of eyeglasses were interesting to me. It was the loss of peripheral sight, the hemming-in of the world by the lenses, that was most miraculous — these objects that moved and blurred around the edges, the limits. The difference between what I could see, and what it was I saw.

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