Discover more from A Writer's Notebook
The One About How I Accidentally Made Lethal Chlorine Gas
Don't try this at home, kids!
I did a dumb thing this morning. There are a million urgent tasks that I need to accomplish, my walls are covered with big sheets of paper sporting outlines and chronologies related to my book, printed out images of paintings and 19th century photographs, so many, in fact, that it’s verging on A Beautiful Mind territory, and my email inbox is so out of control that the Email Police are certainly going to come and haul me off to email prison for the rest of my natural born life, or maybe even an email black ops site where I’ll be tortured and forced to confess all of my email crimes, and so I decided that this would be a great time to deep clean the bathroom.
What writer has not had this thought? On deadline, it’s a perfect time to organize your sock drawer and scrub the baseboards with a toothbrush. Everyone knows that dust bunnies are terrible for your concentration. Soap scum causes writer’s block. I decided that I absolutely and unequivocally had to clean the bathroom before I could proceed with the tasks of the day.
It’s a small bathroom, so I rationalized that it would only take about 30 minutes at most, and then all of life would be more manageable. I checked under the sink to see what cleaning products I had, and pulled out some French Windex-equivalent, some eau de javel, and a vinegar-based cleaning spray. Eau de javel is bleach. I know. As the comedian Mike Birbiglia once said, I am in the future also.
I used the bleach to scrub the bathtub, half-heartedly rinsed it, and then decided that maybe I needed some vinegar to help cut any grease that might have accumulated on the tiles above. So I took the spray bottle and sprayed a whole bunch of vinegar solution all over the tiles above the bathtub, a whole bunch, a cloud of it, if you will, and then let it sit for a minute while I went to go get the paper towels.
When I got back, something was wrong. I tried to clean the vinegar off the tiles but the fumes were starting to sting my eyes way more than usual, like way more, and then suddenly my heart was pounding and breathing became difficult and I felt lightheaded and, yeah. I’d made chlorine gas. Chlorine gas, as in the stuff the Germans used to kill enemy soldiers during WWI. Good times.
I went into the other room and quickly googled bleach and vinegar makes gas? and of course there it was, the word “lethal,” various urgent articles and mildly condescending TikTok chemists telling me to vacate the premises. I hadn’t showered yet, but oh well. I threw on some outside clothes, opened all the windows, and went out to a café to eat a croissant in celebration of the fact that while I’d made the longlist for this week’s Darwin Awards, I hadn’t been given the prize.
So here I am now, at the café, with messy hair and no makeup, grateful that at least the wifi is working here today even though usually it’s not.
A person not on the verge of being hauled away to an Email Police black ops site and tortured there would surely be able to spin this little anecdote into a broader essay about carelessness or procrastination or ignorance, or about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, or maybe even just about the importance of high school chemistry teachers and how you should listen to them. I, however, am a criminal beyond redemption, suitable only to make late-night art historical discoveries that no one will care about, blow past deadlines, and accidentally manufacture chemical weapons in the bathtub. I think I have developed a Pning, which is something I’ve just this moment invented, that is a cross between the protagonist in Nabakov’s novel Pnin, and a Pting, the cute, angry monster from the television show Doctor Who that can eat through spaceships and enjoys being fed a neutron bomb. A Pning, on the other hand, is an adorable psychic parasite that likes to make its nest in the minds of creative people and quietly eat away at their confidence. The damage is subtle, but structural, its presence announced only by the nagging thought that no one wants to see or read that thing you’re making or considering making.
You know that feeling when you’re trying to get your life together but instead you end up manufacturing a fatally poisonous gas? Can chlorine gas get rid of a Pning? Probably, but not without taking me out with it, so I’ll have to give that a pass.
There ought to be a way to rehome a Pning, to carefully remove its nest from your mind, place it in a cardboard box, and then safely transfer it to the mind of a right-wing podcaster, men’s rights activist, conservative New York Times columnist, or a certain orange-faced politician, where the Pning can dine away happily on their every plan and aspiration, and the rest of us can live our lives in peace. In place of that, there has got to be a combination of household ingredients that can be used to exterminate a Pning. I’m fairly certain that the first ingredient is a large portion of “just do the thing”—just write, just paint, just publish your post or your newsletter, just sing, just dance, just exist, just create, just stop apologizing, just get it done, just be—but I’m not sure what the other ingredient is.
It may take some trial and error, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
Enjoy my writing and want to support it? Become a paid subscriber today. You’ll get full access to craft talks, essays, notebook entries, sketchbook pages, and the popular semiannual write-along workshop Essay Camp. You can also buy my books The Oyster War and High Heel, “like” my posts by tapping the heart icon, share them on Substack Notes or other social media, and/or send them to a friend.