"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Boredom


“I’m bored, Mr. P”, said Scott Simmons, one of the boys in a local play group.

“Well, let’s just find something interesting for you to do”, Mrs. Rence said, looking out over the garden where five other 7-year olds were climbing trees, kicking balls, wrestling and racing cars.
“Too boring”, said Scott.  She kept trying.  She trotted out the He-Man figures, spaceman gear, books on jungles and raptors; hammers, nails, and boards.  “Too boring”, he repeated.

“Let’s play hangman”, Mrs. Rence finally said, and got an old doll from my daughter’s closet. “Let’s string her up to the cherry tree.  When I count to three, you pull away the step ladder, and she’ll drop like a stone”.
“Too boring”, said Scott; but by this time the other boys had heard what Mrs. Rence had said and were chanting, “Hang her high! Hang her high”. 



Parents always wondered what Scott’s parents did to keep him occupied, what bag of tricks they had in the basement, or whether they plopped him down in front of the television and settle for some electronic babysitting.

I belonged to a babysitting cooperative and got a privileged look into the lives of my neighbors.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune and spent as many Saturday nights as I could taking care of their kids.  Within a few months I had racked up more chits than anyone else. 
I saw houses that were obsessively clean and others that had never been picked up. Both were impressive in their own way.  The Harter kitchen for example had not a drop of water in the sink, not one streak on any wine glass.  The rugs were all squared with the furniture, the curtains hung with a plumb line.  There was not a mote of dust anywhere, not on the mantle piece, dining room table, or even in the hard-to-reach corners of the bookshelf.  The books were all arrayed like a pipe organ – ascending, then descending.  The leaves on all the plants had been polished, and the flowers were all fresh and perky.
The Pulham house had never been touched.  The foyer was cluttered with old shoes, tattered backpacks, broken umbrellas, and odd galoshes.  The living room was piled high with magazines and newspapers, littered with dirty dishes, scummy water glasses, and cat litter.  The lampshades were scorched, off-kilter and ripped.  There was so little room in the kitchen that the refrigerator door opened only enough for access to the milk cartons and a peek at the green mold on the shelves, meat that lay stinking and rotten, and brown, mushy pears collapsed and squished into brown blobs.  It was disgusting.
Most other homes were somewhere in the middle – lived in, picked up, and comfortable. I had my own rules – look but don’t touch.  I checked out the medicine cabinets to see who was taking what.  I opened bottom drawers but never rummaged through them.  In other words, I wanted to respect privacy and leave plenty of room for conjecture.
The Barons had one child, and from the looks of the playroom they wanted to be sure that she would never be bored.

The playroom was the biggest room in the house.  Whole shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us had been emptied to fill it.  There were dolls and doll houses, balls, dress-up and make-up kits, strollers and ding-dong playthings. Nothing was left to chance.  Any whim, any slight lag in attention span would be accommodated.  It was impressive.
I never got to visit Scott Simmons’ house despite the direct offers I made to his parents.  I lied through my teeth about their boy, saying how he was a most unusual and talented child, and how we loved to have him over.  “We’ve made other arrangements”, the Simmons would always reply. 
I have known many children who were happy just with pots, pans, spoons, and a bucket of water.  There is no end to children’s inventiveness and curiosity.  Pots were banged, filled, and worn on the head. Houses were built out of plastic forks, spoons, and knives.  Channels could be dug in the yard and filled with water; and cardboard bridges could be built over them.  There was no reason for a child ever to be bored.
Chekhov wrote extensively about boredom.  He saw it as a symbol of the dislocation felt by Russian families that were caught between periods of history.  Aristocrats of the old Russia who were unable to deal with the coming socialist order.  Petty bourgeois who had risen out of the peasantry but were still uncomfortable around the wealth of others.  Muscovites floundering in small provincial ponds, academics and intellectuals unsure how to square their visions with reality.  Chekhovian characters said, “I’m bored” as often as Scott Simmons.

Chekhov was sympathetic to the plight of the dislocated and felt that their inaction was tragic.  Human beings are not so flexible after all, he concluded; and all the imagination and ingenuity in the world cannot overcome the ponderous weight of family, tradition. social mores, and personal inertia.
Thornton Wilder in Our Town wrote about the tragedy of routine.  Before you know it your life is over, and you go to your grave remembering only the letters you sorted at the post office or the joints of meat you cut for Mrs.Thompson. Few of us, said Wilder, ever look around us let alone glimpse the eternal.  His characters are not bored, but they are living boring lives.  If only they could look up from their newspapers, peonies, and stews, they could slow time, filling space with all the out-of-the-ordinary perceptions that give texture and diversity to life.
Chekhov’s characters reflect on time, waste, and work.  Many of them feel that they have missed opportunity, been taken in by others’ promises, or misread signals of partnership or love.  Others see the corruption and decay produced by idleness and ascribe boredom – a bourgeois term to be sure – to the indolent lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged.  Some of Chekhov’s characters are proud to be idle, to have never done a lick of work in their lives.  Others condemn a life without work as one without meaning.  Time passes equally quickly for all, and few are happy.  The idle rich see their privileged lives coming to an end.  The peasants and workers are in a brutal limbo between serfdom and revolution; and while intellectuals debate whether work has innate or only relative value, they are frustrated because of their increasing alienation from a society which has less and less need for them.
Boredom is a function of age as well as social and economic circumstance.  The older one gets, the less a life of leisure seems appealing.  What is the fascination of endless waves lapping on the shore, or days in a chaise longue on the beach when there is still so much to learn? “Too soon old, too late schmart”, says the old Yiddish expression, and there is a challenge to proving the adage wrong.

Boredom is not a word in the lexicon of the faithful.  A reflection on the immensity of the universe, on God’s supreme reign, and on the eternity of blissful companionship with Him is more than enough in one’s later years.  Or younger years, for that matter.  If the good people of Wilder’s Grover’s Corners all had religion, then  routine would be turned into devotion, work into penance.  There would be no such thing as boredom.
A woman who works two jobs, cooks, cleans, and takes care of the kids in a trailer in Seagrove, South Carolina is bored silly with her life, but she has been dealt a bad hand, and sitting in front of the TV watching sitcoms and reality shows every night is as good as it gets.  She doesn’t deserve her boredom, but she is not wasting her time.

Chekhov, ever the proto-Socialist, was convinced that universal manual labor was not only the great social equalizer which joined individuals into a classless and ideal community; it prevented boredom – the most corrosive and degrading human sentiment.

Voluntary boredom – i.e. the curse of the unimaginative and the inept – is endemic today.  No matter how diverse one’s social networks may be, or how challenging one’s work or intimate relationships, individuals in society without religion or a secular system which regards work as an intrinsic value, are bored. Even a Vineyard-Palm Springs-Gstaad cycle becomes boring after a time. Activities that are random with no purposeful context become irrelevant and discouraging.
I have an old Jewish friend who has taken the ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’ warning to heart.  He is up at 3am to work on his many projects.  He is not content just to read, but to write about new insights and ideas – to formulate his own conclusions that have been suggested by others.  He has no practical end in mind – no book, no monetized blog, no adjunct professorship.  Nor is he out to populate his intellectual world with new ideas.  He wants only to frame what he learns within the context of his own shortening life.
“What for?”, I tease him.
“What for?”, he says. “To figure out what’s what, you dummy; and if I were you, I’d get started”.
So much for adult boredom.

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