I worked for ten years at the (now defunct, alas) Foundry Bookstore in New Haven, where we had a file drawer labeled NUGATORY GALLIMAUFRY. That's what this page is meant to be -- a little of everything: bio, photos, excerpts from books. Here is an essay on one of my favorite topics, written in my Connecticut days:
They’re what life is mostly made of. Things that are slow, that take too long, that repeat, that are unexciting, that march to their own dragging rhythm. I love them. Boredom? Bring it on!
I take a long walk every day in my neighborhood. Like Proust’s hero, I have two major “ways”: the “Hilly Way,” and the route I Proustianly call “Swans’ Way” because it takes me by the lake where a pair of swans nests every spring. I usually alternate the two walks, but this past spring I tended to take Swans’ Way so I could check on the birds. Every day, in every weather, I observed the swans as one sat on the eggs and the other brought helpful new bits to add to the nest or just swam around looking majestic. Every day I had the same hope—that the eggs had hatched — and every day (for about six weeks, until five balls of gray fluff finally showed up in mid-May), it was dashed. Every day I checked out the swans, went around the lake, then turned onto a street lined with houses and trees and front lawns that I’d seen a hundred times. Two hundred. Five hundred. A thousand?
I have never found this walk boring.
Boring things just aren’t that boring. Take my neighborhood. (I’ll resist the joke.) I live in New England, where the shapes of the houses I pass are often classic, elegant, perfectly proportioned. And then, of course, there are houses with completely different kinds of shapes. Do I like them? Some. I can never really decide. I look at them and ponder the question: how should a house look? Why is this good and this ugly? There’s so much to look at. Shutters, front doors, additions on the side, roses, porches, dogs, weird garden ornaments, cars, mums, broken windows, front walks, garages, mailboxes, wreaths. Trees — leafy in summer, bare in winter. Vinyl siding, bricks, wooden clapboards that need painting, wooden clapboards being painted light blue by a bearded man on a ladder. Fences, lilac bushes, FOR SALE signs, bicycles, cats asleep in the sun, hedges, piles of leaves....
I’m not always looking, really looking, at any of this stuff. Sometimes I’m just thinking. Walking, I think well. I take a pen and notebook with me so that, if I think of anything interesting, I can jot it down. Mostly, I think about boring things, but, whether boring or not, they don’t bore me. Boring things can be interesting.
On today’s walk (the Hilly Way), I was thinking that, if I ever have to stay in bed for a time but am not feeling too awful (mild but lingering case of flu, broken leg, recovery from minor surgery), I would like to write down on A-Z index cards the name of everyone I’ve ever known. From the Abbott I went to college with to the Zucker who was an usher at my first wedding, and everybody in between that I can recall. It seems boring, yes, but in a good, even amusing, way.
I would also like to interview people about what they do in the morning when they get up — the first hour, say. Most people have a routine. Here’s mine: I’m usually awakened early by my cat Duke, who climbs up on my stomach and purrs. So I pet Duke for a bit. Then I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, and put in my contacts. Then I check email and headlines, take vitamins with orange juice, make tea (English Breakfast, skim milk) and a piece of whole wheat toast (butter, honey) and consume same sitting in the red chair by the window where I do the Times crossword and watch the sky get lighter. Then I give Duke his morning shot of insulin, let the cats out, scoop the litter box, haul myself upstairs to take a shower and get going. None of this is unusual or startling, but in some sense it’s not un-interesting. And something in me wants to know what other people’s routines are. I want to collect them, see where they overlap, note what percentage of people brush their teeth before breakfast and what percentage after, marvel at anything highly individual (make pitcher of martinis, play bagpipes). The results would be boring but also interesting.
If I had to stare for an hour at the same tree or even at the swan on her nest, I might call that a boring thing to do. Living in a prison cell with one tiny high window showing nothing but sky, an occasional bird flying by, now and then a cloud or the moon — yes, that would be boring. But looking at something boring doesn’t mean you’re thinking about that thing. You can think about anything you want. You don’t have to think: I’m getting awfully tired of looking at this swan. Boring things free your mind. You can be writing a poem in your head, or remembering the day you realized your parents weren’t gods but humans, or planning a trip to Vancouver, or devising a vegetarian menu for Thanksgiving dinner, or (one of my own favorites) fantasizing about what you’d do if you were suddenly given five million dollars.
It’s probably safe to say that people who claim they’re never bored (I’m one of them) really mean that they don’t find boring things boring. Or that they have a lot of defenses against boredom. Or maybe it’s just that everyone has her own definition of boredom. Bertrand Russell said that a certain amount of boredom is essential to a happy life. By boredom, he probably meant solitude, or downtime, or a repetitive activity that leads to an achievement (things like hitting a tennis ball against a backboard or practicing scales on the piano or – in Russell’s case – memorizing the poems of Shelley). He probably wasn’t thinking of an hour in the dentist’s waiting room where the only magazines are Soldier of Fortune and Woman’s Day – always cited as the quintessential boring situation – though of course it is not necessarily uninteresting to read tips for being a successful mercenary or for losing your post-holiday flab. If that pales, you still have the five million dollars and the poem to ponder, not to mention the curious shoes of the woman sitting across from you.
Maybe it’s just a matter of terminology. Boredom is a big tent. It’s probably not useful to contrast waiting-room boredom with boredoms like Seneca’s taedium vitae or the early Church’s acedia (which was a sin) or Sartre’s ennui or what used to be known as “the English malady”: melancholia (as opposed to “the French malady,” which was syphilis). Those may actually be forms of clinical depression (depressed people tend to be bored), and are unrelated to regular old boredom, which usually boils down to the annoyance of having nothing fun to do. (Though ennui and annoyance have the same Latin root.) Melancholy and ennui (or boredom in any foreign language) may also just be forms of pretension. When I was in college and reading too much poetry and stubbornly in love with someone who was not in love with me, I fancied myself a melancholic. I remember lying in bed all day, routinely cutting psych class and biology lab, smoking endless Marlboros and reading about people who committed suicide. I oozed ennui. It was intensely interesting.
Not being bored is about little things, not the big picture. Defenses against boredom are noticing, distraction, details: Nabokov called them “the divine details,” and urged writers to “caress” them. Maybe non-boredom is just thinking small, zeroing in. Or seeing what’s glimpsed from the corner of your eye. The eggs still haven’t hatched, and life is essentially bleak and overwhelming, but there’s a snowy egret across the lake who suddenly rises into the air, flapping its wings and dangling its spindly black legs against the bright blue sky.
Here's somebody else who does: James Ward, a British conoisseur of the boring, the mundane, and the perversely entertaining. He runs an annual Boring Conference in London and heads up a Stationery Club ("a club where people talk about stationery"), and his website contains his thoughts on topics like square teabags, fascinating analyses of corporate websites, and much, much more. Highly recommended.
Boredom: A Lively History
A good book about boredom, by Peter Toohey
Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind
An even better book about boredom, by Patricia Meyer Spacks.
A short bio...
I was born in Syracuse, NY, an only child, and went to the same Syracuse parochial school from 1st to 12th grades -- St. John the Baptist Academy, which inspired SISTER BERNADETTE'S BARKING DOG and makes an appearance (heavily disguised) in DUET. I have a B.A. from Boston University and an M.A. from Syracuse, both in English literature.
Since college, I've lived in Boston, New Haven, New York City, and New Haven again. My daughter, also an only child, lives with her husband and my three grandchildren in California, where she is a law professor.
I work as a freelance editor for publishers, websites, individuals, whatever comes along. When I'm not writing or editing, I read, take a daily long walk, cook for friends, do crossword puzzles (obsessively), keep a voluminous diary (as I have done for 40+ years), visit the kids in California, and occasionally write an actual letter, in an envelope, with a stamp, in my new and improved handwriting -- see Script & Scribble for befores and afters.
I can provide freelance editing of fiction and memoirs. If you’re looking for help with a manuscript, at any point in its development, you are welcome to e-mail me.