I can only remember three jokes at any one time. If I manage to learn a new joke, I will inevitably forget one of the original three. It’s nerve-wracking to live with this idea that you’re constantly forgetting something — your girlfriend’s birthday, a dentist appointment or the name of the person you work beside every day. And so after 30 years of coping with forgetfulness, I finally admitted that I needed a whiteboard.
In the stationery shop, once beyond the stacks of pens, toppers, rubbers and folders, I came to a high shelf stocked with whiteboards of various sizes. As I stood in the reflected glow of those pure and perfect boards, I imagined the organised life that would surely follow once I owned one. In my mind’s eye I saw the board hanging on the rear wall of my office, peppered with lists, reminders and schedules. Above all else, schedules: timetables to get things crossed off the board. For a moment I considered how productive I might become if I owned two whiteboards. But no, I thought, it is enough for any man to have one. To own two seemed somehow decadent.
From the top shelf I took down the largest whiteboard in stock and walked to the counter. The shop attendant had thick-rimmed glasses and a tight black outfit to accentuate her curves. She had that anaemic complexion common to most Vietnamese during winter, and there was a guarded and suspicious country look about her, like she believed everyone in the city to be a huckster, and everything to be false gadgetry.
And she was mostly right, I was thinking to myself as I stared at her curves: the dominance of style, the decline of substance, the slow drip-drip of morality into the sewer. Who could deny her these grievances? But she wasn’t to know — how could she? — that what I was buying from her for less than VND300,000 would single-handedly turn my life around so I could transcend all that. Once I owned the whiteboard, I would systematically work my way through my own life’s tasks, and then move on to the ills of society. In the end, I might even be able to fix her problems.
She looked bored and angry at the same time. “Is that it?” she said, readjusting her glasses.
“Yes,” I said, “this is everything.”
The Life of a Whiteboard Owner
So I cycled home in the gale force wind carrying the 90cm x 60cm whiteboard under my oxter like a sail, and steered my bicycle with my other hand. The rain was seeping into the exposed sponge of my saddle and I reminded myself that I must write Buy new saddle on the whiteboard as soon as I got home. Of course, I forgot. When I got it home I put the whiteboard on top of a low bookcase in my office, wrote the words Buy whiteboard on it and duly drew a line through these words with a dry-wipe marker I had bought for that exact purpose. Then I sat in my office chair admiring my new whiteboard, and swivelled.
Strangely, some months after owning the whiteboard, my life was not quite ‘turned around’, whatever I supposed that to mean anyway. Sure, I used it — I mean, I wrote things on it from time to time — but once something had been written on the board I ignored it. And so, whereas previously I used to lose track of the things I was supposed to do, now I had a comprehensive list of the things I was meant to, but was not, doing.
Propped up against the back wall and surrounded by books I had yet to read, the board became covered in terse bullet points as if barked by some truculent overlord: make mnemonic for list of chores; re-read lecture notes; memorise new joke.
I grew to hate the board.
Every time I glanced at it I was reminded of all the things I should have done long ago. My tax returns stayed on the board for at least three months, to give an example. Filling out my driver’s licence application form — about four months. As for going to the GP for a check-up — pending. I am prone to procrastination because I can’t stand following orders and being obliged to give up my time to anyone. Even if those orders come from myself. In fact, rather than being surprised by my ability to put things off, I was surprised that I ever got anything done. For instance, how did I manage to bring myself around to buying a whiteboard? I must have tricked myself into it somehow.
The Return to Innocence
To assuage my guilt for not following my list of things I needed to do, I made exhaustive ‘to do’ lists, ones where no achievement was too small to be recorded (e.g. go to the cinema, clean shoes, read book). I did this so that the damning order to carry out a significant task became crowded out, a small star lost among a nebula of completed tasks.
Eventually the board became so full of lists and reminders, small tasks and big ones, that all the world’s problems had become intermixed with my own. I found things on the board that I didn’t even remember writing: The Problems in Thailand — causes and solutions; Get wrapping paper and sustainable energy source.
Everything was blocking itself, and nothing could get done. I started filling the board up. In a frenzy, I wrote every task I could think of, both trivial and momentous, in tiny letters along the margins and in between the lines. I filled the board until there was no more room, and the voice to remind me became a roaring cacophony of orders, demands and suggestions — all of it beautifully incomprehensible.
In the final square of white space I wrote the words, clean board, and then I wiped the whole damn mess clean. And there, once again, was the whiteness shining through. The world was returned to a calm garden of innocence on a bright day. Every colour of the spectrum met in perfect equality on that clean whiteboard propped up against the wall of my office. Purity, serenity and the scope for infinite potential; all this was suddenly restored with the swipe of a rag.
Now, to avoid stockpiling my problems, I only ever use it to write jokes on. At this point I can remember four good ones. Okay, so stop me if you’ve already heard this one: A guy walks into a bar…