In 1960, a company formed that would change the way we pack things.
In 1957, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes tried to create a three-dimensional plastic wallpaper. At some point they realized that it was better for other purposes, and in 1960 Fielding co-founded Sealed Air. And in the intervening six decades, millions of porcelain figurines have survived thanks to them, millions of people with excess nervous tension have found an outlet through popping plastic bubbles, and millions of other people who happened to be sitting near those millions of people have found a cause of nervous tension.
In general, December is a bumper month of bubble wrap, although in 2020 every month is a bumper month of bubble wrap. It’s true that many companies now have more sophisticated means of packing, but if you’re shopping on eBay or Etsy, bubble wrap is still the thing you look forward to seeing (because if it’s not bubble wrap, it’s either newspaper plus broken porcelain or it’s foam popcorn and Hell). I have bought numerous old camera lenses on eBay (numerous, I say), and nearly all of them have come wrapped in a volume of bubble wrap equal to or greater than the volume of the lens. There is a certain pleasure in cutting through the tape with a utility knife and peeling away the bubble wrap to reveal the beauty within. At times, however, there’s a bit more cutting and peeling than I really feel is necessary.
Some people do use too much bubble wrap. And it’s not free like air, you know! One time when my family were moving we had some people helping us move, and we noticed how a whole (not cheap) roll of bubble wrap we had bought had gotten used very quickly. When we unpacked, we realized why: someone had used the entire roll to wrap one lamp and put it in a big green plastic garbage bin that we were also moving (don’t ask).
Bubble, by the way, is an old Germanic word that you can also see in languages such as Dutch (bubbel) and Swedish (bubbla). Wrap may also be an old Germanic word, though its origins are little less clear; it may be related, way back, to warp and to Latin vertere, source of divert and pervert.
But, speaking of words… there is literal bubble wrap, and there is verbal bubble wrap. And notwithstanding that verbal bubble wrap is fun to say, what it names is less fun to read, especially when several layers obscure one source of illumination.
We all use it sometimes, verbal bubble wrap. It’s that excess verbiage that we use to cushion the impact of something we would otherwise think too sharp or too fragile or too exposed. It’s so much reused wallpaper. Like this:
There are, of course, as we all know, times in a person’s life when they feel unduly vulnerable, when something just happens to strike them a certain way, a combination of the moment and the mood and their place in life and the various stresses they encounter. We all have surely had a moment of this sort at one time or another, or at least something approximating it. I at one time when I was in university found myself, on a foggy evening when I had been out for a walk by myself and was feeling in some way moody or vulnerable, looking up at a single red-lit window in a church belfry and being moved towards tears, and perhaps I shed a few before moving on. I don’t mean to say that this was truly significant, but somehow it felt that way to me.
When we encounter literal bubble wrap, we may want to pop the bubbles, and when we encounter verbal bubble wrap, we may similarly want to let the air out of this or that little bit of it. We might take “There are, of course, as we all know … stresses they encounter” from the above and turn it into “There are times for all of us when we feel vulnerable.” But the thing about popping bubble wrap is that when you’ve finished popping it, you still have all that plastic in the way, and it’s even less likeable. Instead of popping it, just peel it away and set it aside, and you will get what’s within:
Once, on a foggy evening when I was a university student out walking alone, I looked up at a single glowing red window in a belfry and burst into tears.
Literal bubble wrap is useful, because you don’t want to the mail to deliver broken things that don’t work. But verbal bubble wrap is seldom of any value, because what makes stories work is brokenness.