Thursday, January 31, 2013

On boredom

What makes you bored?” I asked David and Maureen. They looked at me blankly. We were sitting on the long benches on either side of their eight-foot library table that has hosted meals and conversations for more than 30 years. A chicken stew simmered on the stove. Maureen tossed the salad. John straddled the bench next to me. David poured the wine.

You know, bored,” I repeated. “My writing group's assignment is about boredom. So I've been thinking about what makes me bored. I never get bored when I'm by myself, or walking in the woods. I get bored when I'm with other people. Which is shocking for someone who's a life coach.”

Maureen sprinkled fresh strawberries over the salad greens. “I get bored when someone goes on and on,” she said. “A motor mouth.”

David looked puzzled. His amber eyes narrowed and took on that piercing look he gets when he's thinking. “I sometimes get bored when I'm doing something completely repetitive, like banging nails into fascia. I just tell myself, keep going.”

John stood up and yawned. “I get bored by conversations about boredom,” he said, and ambled off into the living room.

Digging deep into my crusty memory, a handful of boring scenes finally swam into focus. When I was 17 or 18, I travelled to Holland and stayed with various relatives. I remember one visit to a distant aunt and uncle where there was nothing to do. No cousins around. No English books. No card games. We sat on stiff upholstered couches in a large sparse living room, trying to make small talk. My uncle hid behind his daily newspaper. My aunt fidgeted, then went to the kitchen to lay out the cold supper, which we ate in an awkward silence. I counted the minutes until I could decently escape.

Boredom can have consequences. One day in home economics class in high school, our teacher Mrs. Wolsley droned on about how to make up a bed properly. You folded the foot end of the top sheet over the bottom one in such a way as to create a crisp triangular pleat that fell neatly down the side. It was called a “hospital corner” because that's the way nurses were taught to make up hospital beds.

As Mrs. Wolsley earnestly passed on this bit of arcane knowledge, my best friend Lois Ghent rolled her eyes at me and we began passing a note. 'Mrs. Wolsley's nose looks like a pig's.' 'Her nostrils are big and crooked.' 'No wonder she doesn't have children, even though she's married!' We snickered and passed the note back and forth.

The next day, Mrs. Wolsley asked Lois and I to remain after class. We sat down, puzzled. What did the old cow want now? She laid her closed fist on the top of her desk and and then opened her hand. There lay our note: lines of blue and black ink stabbing the three-hole ruled paper. I gulped and turned fiery red. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lois, head bent, long brown hair hiding her face.

In a mild voice, Mrs. Wolsley told us that these words had hurt her. That was all she said. We left her classroom feeling appalled at our careless cruelty. Lois and I wrote her letters of apology, but the incident often nagged at me. A few years later, at university, I was making an evening gown to wear to a gala and dance to which a boy had asked me to attend as his date. A tight-fitting off-the-shoulder pattern lay ready to be cut out of vermillion velvet. But which way to pin the pattern pieces: with the velvet nap running up or down? I couldn't remember. I phoned Mrs. Wolsley, even though it was the middle of the day and long distance charges applied. Long minutes ticked by as the high school secretary went to find her. When Mrs. Wolsley finally came on the line, I explained my predicament. “The nap should run up,” she said. I thought I heard a note of pleasure in her voice at being called, long distance, for her advice. And even though she never knew it, to this day I take pleasure in making neat hospital corners.

In all fairness, I suspect that I too have been boring from time to time. I remember talking with my cousin Titia's husband Henk at a family gathering in Holland several years ago. The room was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins – many of whom I did not know well, along with family friends I had never before met. I glommed onto Henk, peppering him with questions about his volunteer projects. At first he replied enthusiastically, but finally he backed away, saying, “I really should say hello to some other people now.”

Looking back, it's been difficult to find many examples of boredom – and my friends agree. Perhaps it's because boredom blurs things, washes away memory's bright colours. Or maybe our lives are just way too busy for boredom to take root. I remember going for coaching during a time when I was trying to overcome deeply ingrained workaholism. My coach, Anne, assigned this exercise: every weekend, three hours of unstructured time. “No flipping through the to-do list,” she ordered. “And no reading – that's an escape. I want you to tune into yourself and listen. What would you really like to do? Maybe you'll be lucky enough to get bored and experience what springs out of boredom.”

The first weekend after this coaching session, I spent several minutes aimlessly wandering about outside. I finally sat down on the ground and began playing with the large flat flagstones left over from the building of our fireplace. Three hours of total absorption later, I had placed five stones in what would become an unfinished path to our front door. Needless to say, I wasn't bored.

But what is it about being with other people that causes boredom to seep over you like a thick fog? What exactly is it that's boring? One-way conversations. No interest in what I might have to say. Someone who is blind to reading signs of eyes glazing over. A feeling of being trapped in time in a never-ending tape loop of the same thing, repeated over and over. Blah, blah, blah. Boredom leads to restlessness and wandering thoughts, to stifled yawns and tapping feet. Boredom brews resentment and cynicism. Boredom is an ennui with what is, and with whomever is sitting or standing in front of us.

It strikes me that I get bored when people don't live up to my rules – that there should be mutual interest, that one should sensitively include others. Give and take is one of my rules. Plus, give and take leads to connection, which is the sine qua non for me. The point of good conversation, of lively teaching, of meaningful exchanges, is to connect – isn't it? What would happen if I abandoned those rules? Would boredom transform into something else?

I'm going to try something new,” I said to Maureen and David. “I never get bored by trees – there's always something fascinating to learn about them. The texture of the bark, the shape of the leaves, the play of light among the branches – it's endless. The next time I catch myself becoming bored with someone, I'm going to say to myself: 'what kind of tree is this person?' “

David stared at me in silence, then guffawed. “Good luck!” We sat down to eat.


  1. This is a delightful piece on boredom! Funny and quirky and insightful. I did not have any trouble coming up with a memory of what bored me -- meetings when I worked in the government! They had to be the most soul-destroying waste of time ever, as self-important people tried to manufacture a reason for their work existence and show each other up. And most of us knew that whatever was discussed one day would be the opposite the next! I was bored because there was no meaning in any of it. But ever since leaving that milieu, I can honestly say I have almost never felt bored. Even when someone is talking about something that doesn't particularly interest me, I find myself intrigued by their voice or their gestures. This is a great topic!

  2. Thanks Sherry -- or maybe our lack of boredom is a function of getting older, and we're both intent on milking life for all it's worth?!