On a 2010 road trip with Vic up the east coast of New Zealand, I sat in the passenger seat thinking about subatomic particles. We learned about protons, neutrons and electrons at school, courtesy of the best teacher I ever had, Norm Birkinshaw – yet Norm had hinted that there was a fair bit more to it.
I’d recently read an article about Super-Kamiokande (スーパーカミオカンデ), short for the “Super-Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment”. It’s a 50,000 litre tank of super pure water a kilometre below Mount Ikeno in Gifu prefecture, Japan, and it’s designed to measure neutrinos and antineutrinos that might pass through and occasionally collide with a water molecule, scattering its particles and causing a blue flare of Cherenkov radiation. It’s sometimes abbreviated just to Super K. A marvel of great magnitude, with many names, built to capture something unfathomably small.
As people probed further into the anatomy of the atom they discovered and theorised even smaller particles, a whole “zoo” of them: quarks, bosons, leptons (which includes neutrinos), and more. There are further subdivisions: Quarks alone can be divided into “generations”, which feature pairs of particles: up/down, charm/strange, top/bottom. One is called strange – but just the one. The scientists have had a royal time with the nomenclature.
These particles vary by mass, charge, stability. Some of them were theorised to exist before they were confirmed, based on a strong feeling that something should exist in a gap in the family – like the Higgs Boson particle. Some are hard enough to detect that you have to build a hydromegabunker to develop what is essentially an ambitious long-exposure image of the invisible.
The particle physicists tunnel deeper and deeper, delving smaller and smaller, searching for the constituent parts of everything; the astrophysicists launch instead outwards, their eyes on ever bigger things – moons, planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies. All the while they are widening the range within which our imaginations can roam.
Herbertville: North of Ākitio and south of Pōrangahau
One of the first destinations on our roadtrip tour of off-the-beaten-track New Zealand locations was a little township called Herbertville, located on the east coast, north of Ākitio and south of Pōrangahau. We had no GPS, nor phones which did anything beyond make a call or send a text; we were navigating with a tattered book of maps. We wanted to go where all the other people weren’t going, although not out of any need to avoid anyone – we were in love, full of whimsy, and looking for something new. We wondered who we might encounter along the way.
I drifted back from abstract notions of subatomic particles and monstrous water tanks. The landscape whisking by was all cabbage trees and cows, a gentle bovine segue back to medium-size reality. The light of the day was starting to fade.
We didn’t see any cars on the road on the way into Herbertville. We found the campground on the map and pulled up, planning to find a spot for our tent. A light wind whistled like it had a lisp, crisscrossing through fence slats and overgrown hedges. There was a sunbleached note on the door that said “Back in 5 minutes” that looked like it had been written in a hurry, decades prior. We knocked anyway, and peered in through the windows. We thought the proprietor might be somewhere in the camp, greeting attendees or doing maintenance, so we left the car at the front and went in to take a look around.
There were a lot of caravans, in various stages of disrepair; rusty, or covered with lichen. Everything appeared partway through the process of fading and returning to earthen colours, becoming a forest again. Some caravans had makeshift wooden structures growing out the side of them. Perhaps they were tired of the dwelling/vehicle duality and were now bedding in, morphing into more permanent fixtures.
For so many caravans, we expected to encounter people, but… we didn’t.
“Hello?” we asked, quietly at first, then a little louder, until it felt absurd.
As we neared a small grove of trees, the wind died back and there was total silence. Vic and I looked at each other, and stopped walking. The wind revived after a minute, and a rusty old swing started rocking back and forth. Reeeeee. Rooooo. Reeeee. Rooooo. Now we were truly in horror-movie territory. Reeeeee. Rooooo. Reeeee. Rooooo.
We hastened back to the car and got inside. But then we laughed. This was silly, wasn’t it?
“Maybe we should just choose a camping spot for now, and find the owners later,” said Vic.
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
It was a little while before Vic turned the key in the ignition.
We started coasting around the camp. The crackle of gravel underneath the tyres was excruciating. We pulled to a stop next to a promising patch of grass.
As we were getting out the tent poles, we heard another car. It limped over to us, and a guy with blonde hair who looked to be in his twenties wound down the window and slowly said, “Hello.”
He explained that he and his girlfriend were from Sweden. He shifted in his seat, and there was a long pause.
“Where… is everyone?” he asked.
“We don’t know,” I said. “It is… strange.”
We talked for a little while, and then there was another silence.
“Can we… stay next to you?” he asked.
We stopped short of sharing a tent and posting a watch, but not too far short. Although we’d barely spoken, they pitched their tent next to ours, close enough that the guide ropes intersected.
Once it got fully dark, they seemed in a hurry to get to bed and close their eyes. They mumbled goodnight and zipped up their tent.
But we were wide awake. We decided to venture out, in search of human life. We crept out, a little guilty about leaving the terrified Swedish couple, but we thought they were probably asleep. We should have politely knocked on the door of our neighbours and asked if they’d care to join us, but you can’t – tents are made of fabric, and the “door” is just a convention. If they weren’t asleep then I guess they were lying there dead still, sleeping bags pulled up to their chin, listening to their newfound protectors wander off into the night. Just like in the movies: “Let’s split up. I’ll be right back. Meet back here.”
A little way down the road we found a bar with a light on. Inside was a real person, the barman, drying some dishes. He poured us a couple of whiskeys. We hadn’t eaten, but we weren’t hungry.
The glasses looked like they’d been sitting on that shelf since the sixties, perhaps. I could see bits that had settled in the glass swirling around in the orange liquid. I could feel a layer of grease and dust between my hand and the glass. A man at the end of the bar – one of the last on earth? – looked at us briefly, and raised his drink to us.
In the morning, when we woke up, the Swedish couple were already gone. Hopefully of their own volition. All that was left was some damp, flat grass.
The proprietor found us there, getting ready to leave, and we paid.
“Is there a petrol station nearby?” Vic asked.
“No,” the proprietor said. “There used to be one, but not any more. Closest is Pōrangahau.”
We drove on out of there in search of food and petrol, wondering whether we’d ever even been there, whether the campground even existed.
A crackle of energy
We almost ran out of petrol, almost got stranded in Herbertville. But we made it the short distance to Pōrangahau, coasting on the fumes.
That encounter with such a strange, vast emptiness had rattled us, but it was fleeting, and already, back on the road, the static of fear was quickly gone. It was a time of my life when I felt I could look back on a day and be surprised by it (but unaffected), and wake up the next day to wonder once more, “I wonder what I might do today?” because every day could be anything, there were fewer things to hold in my head, and I wasn’t too concerned about any one thing.
Whereas once a concern would have just passed right on through my brain, I started to notice and dwell on each concern, more than was probably needed. These concerns now leave a trace, a crackle of energy that persists. Given enough time, it will dissipate, but not as quickly as it once would have, like in Herbertville. These concerns come in all the categories of a life: family, children, relationships, friends, house, money, pets, work, etc.
When these concerns start to fire through simultaneously, when they build collectively, the overall energy increases, and they may even start to collide. Here I am Super K, but the neutrinos are far more abundant and there are coloured flashes all over the place.
My capacity to handle all this crisscrossing, this buildup of energy, these random collisions of circumstance – it has limits. At first it’s just energy, but it can blossom into physical symptoms, and then, ultimately, into an actual destination. It is called Frazzleville, and it is the endpoint of various states of frazz.
This destination is real. (Herbertville is also real. I am sorry, by the way, Herbertville. We might have just caught you on an off day. A really, really, desolate, end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic, dystopian-landscape, no-else-left-alive off day. We all have them.) Let me explain how to get (or not to get) to Frazzleville.
Stage 1: Mild frazz
- Baseline state: The cat and the dog are making moderate and reasonable demands.
- Baseline state: The children are cute, talking nicely to each other, and merely asking reasonable questions.
- Baseline state: Work is fine, and things get done by the end of each day.
- Baseline state: A physical bill comes in via the letterbox but it’s already been paid online, which just makes you wonder why all the paper?
- Elevated state: There’s a bathroom leak, which needs attention before it damages the walls/floor.
- Elevated state: There is an internet salesperson at the door.
Stage 2: Moderately enfrazzled
- Baseline state: Work is a little busy, but things are still getting done, and no one is too concerned about deadlines just yet.
- Elevated state: All four family members are getting ready for taekwondo but it’s been raining for days and all the gear is still wet.
- Elevated state: Verbal shots fired between the siblings: Ida – “Papa! Neko said I’m a poo face!” Neko – “That’s cos she is.”
- Elevated state: A kindly plumber fixes the bathroom leak, but not before it soaked into the walls and the paint is coming away above the skirting.
- Elevated state: The dog has run around in the wet and traipsed mud inside. The cat has been in the chicken coop and comes to sit on your knee, which is really intended to bring you back to a baseline state, but the cat has stood in some chicken poo and now you smell like poo (this would normally elevate you straight to critical state, but chicken poo is the least offensive kind).
Stage 3: Frazzled
- Baseline state: Taekwondo was fun, but I was using old pads and got kicked square in the solar plexus (note to self: purchase better pads).
- Elevated state: Blurry eyes from looking at too many screens too often, even with all the contrast and blue light settings adjusted. Wondering whether I should finally get those reading glasses I was prescribed, but Neko says, “No, you can’t, Papa! Then you’d look like a professor!”
- Elevated state: Work is a bit frantic. We seem to be aiming to complete 130% of what is achievable with the time available when we’re not in meetings. I’m in a meeting with my boss and my boss’s boss and my boss’ boss’ boss, which seems like a lot of bosses for one meeting.
- Elevated state: For some reason a bill that I thought was paid was not in fact paid, and now a utilities company is sending us bolshy emails far more aggressive than is perhaps necessary for a $70 bill that’s a few days overdue.
- Critical state: The dog has run through its own poo, and is now walking through the house, leaving remnants (most poo, except perhaps chicken poo, instantly elevates an item to a critical state).
Stage 4: Over-frazzled
- Elevated state: Headache, rising. Fullstop.
- Elevated state: The children are engaged in some kind of turf warfare involving their bedrooms, some soft toys, and an eclectic set of Lego, combining many sets received by both over time.
- Elevated state: At work people are knocking at the door asking for revisions to projects that I thought were finished long ago. The number of fires I am able to put out is now being surpassed by the overall number of fires.
- Elevated state: I start stupid disagreements over stuff that matters not in the slightest, like whether there are dishes in the sink. “Why are there always dishes in the sink?” “There aren’t – you’re exaggerating.” These stupid disagreements spawn more stupid disagreements.
- Critical state: I knock a milk bottle down the stairs and it smashes all over the stairs and concrete. Neko runs out to see what the kerfuffle is and he runs through the glass; he’s unharmed, but I’m annoyed at him anyway, and for this he is (rightly) aggrieved.
- Critical state: The cat, restless and carefree, has given up stalking the chickens because they are too big, but caught a sparrow, dragged it inside half alive, and is periodically letting it go and then recatching it inside. There are feathers everywhere, and Vic, unflappable about most things, is, well, flappable. The chickens are restless; their coop has turned into a swamp with all the rain, and they now look like bedraggled rats with the occasional feather.
Stage 5: FRAZZLEVILLE
- Critical state: The paint damage from the bathroom leak is pretty minor in comparison to the condensation damage on ALL OF THE WOODEN WINDOWS in the house, even though we’re studious with this little window vacuum cleaner for removing all the water, when it appears. A guy comes to talk about fixing the house with a comprehensive ventilation system, which sounds great, but he keeps using the words “just” and “only” to describe the large sums of money required to make such a thing a reality.
- Critical state: The cat has accidentally left some poo in the middle of the hallway; the dog is eyeing it up.
- Critical state: In the early morning, every family member is listening to a different audiobook or podcast or song at the same time, in the same space. Above the cacophony of voices, Neko is asking for more food even though he’s already eaten three breakfasts, Ida is refusing to eat, and Vic is asking whether the hair on her broken hand is now growing differently to the hair on her not broken hand.
- Critical state: The siblings are openly at war, and trying to sneak in minor blows and claim innocence with excuses like: “What? I was just walking past and I brushed him with my foot.” Or: “We were just playing! And I… tapped her on the face.”
- Critical state: Work is on fire and there is widespread looting.
- Critical state: There are rainbow lights in front of my eyes, which usually signals an incoming megaheadache. My muscles are so tight they constrict the nerves to my face, which goes numb.
- EVERYTHING IS IN ALL CAPS NOW, LIKE THOSE TEXT MESSAGES FROM YOUR MUM WHEN SHE HAD AN OLD PHONE. THIS IS FRAZZLEVILLE.
- AKA: Stress nexus, breakdown station, anxiety central, FRAZZLEGEDDON, FRAZZLE ROCK.
You have no power over me
I know that there need not be so much frazzle because this was not always the case. There used to be far less crackling of energy.
I did a meditation course where they used this analogy of clouds on a blue sky: how the sky isn’t actually the thing that changes, it’s the clouds in front of it that appear to change. You get caught up with the clouds, because that’s what you focus on.
When I can step back and think about things a little more objectively, the same is pretty much true for my brain. All of these states, they’re momentary. These concerns don’t need to collide and create a chain reaction. It’s my excessive noticing of them that builds the tension, and allows Frazzleville to manifest.
I guess I need to come at it more like Jennifer Connolly in the movie Labyrinth, who realises that the goblin king doesn’t really have a hold on her. She only thought he did.