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The trivial tasks that haunt our to-do lists

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/8/2019 Emma Brockes

For a while, it was anything to do with insurance that would break me. I’d file my taxes roughly on time, conscientiously plough through the rest of my to-do list, then let a major piece of insurance lapse because the thought of picking up the phone to talk to an agent was apparently too much to bear. A similar lassitude took hold around the broken booster on my wifi. I thought about the booster and talked about the booster in inverse proportion to my efforts to fix it.

We hold our lives together with tape and string until something trivial comes along to undo us.

Related: Can we fix it? The repair cafes waging war on throwaway culture

For almost two weeks now, every time someone in my house has walked from the living room to the kitchen they have had to step over the corpse of a vacuum cleaner. There it lies, like a fallen dragon, in the middle of the living room floor. It was expensive; it seems casual to just replace it. And yet getting it fixed is completely beyond me. Instead, I watch videos about vacuum care on YouTube, fronted by helpful men in the Midlands. I ring the manufacturer’s hotline, making small, positive noises when the man on the other end of the line recommends things I’ve already done or wildly suggests I go to the vacuum care centre in New Jersey. I think I have narrowed the problem down to a blockage behind a disc you need to detach with a tiny screwdriver. But I don’t have a tiny screwdriver. I have never felt so defeated.

It would help if I could isolate what it is about a particular chore that bumps it from being a regular, tedious obligation to a jam in the system, but I can’t find a common factor. It can be paperwork, maintenance, a doctor’s appointment – all of which have been efficiently executed many times before. There seems no way to predict when a stubborn go-slow will strike, only the certainty that strike it will, and the suspicion that talking and thinking about it functions as a small diversion from other anxieties.

It reminds me of that bit in The Corrections, where Jonathan Franzen – back when everyone still loved him – summarises the mental state of an elderly couple called Enid and Alfred with the phrase “the anxiety of coupons”. They carry on living their lives in apparent normality while in their basement, hundreds of expired coupons pile high. “The dates were not even close,” writes Franzen. “The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.”

My vacuum’s a Dyson. Everyone I know with a Dyson seems to have had trouble with it. These are the kinds of observations I make these days. There is a vacuum repair shop 30 blocks north of my apartment, but the idea of hauling it up there seems as outlandish as a mission to Mars. And so it remains where it fell, a monument to my laziness, the tiniest, most pointless rebellion, or a signal about the imminent collapse of the system.

• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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