boring people

A Defense of Boring People

No boring subject exists, just bored people. Boring people tend to find the subjects they bore into quite fascinating, stimulating, and they usually emerge as experts in their field. Bored people are cool, but dilettantes.

My bride’s mother used to tell her essentially that good girls should never be bored. At first blush, I hated this idea because it seemed to assume that boredom was bad or led to bad things and so the proper response was to become a sort of busybody, an idle cat lady on Facebook actively arguing about everything from Easter Service times to emoji choices, to argue about everything inconsequential and ignoring the consequences of such a habit when applied to a whole society.

If that’s what my mother-in-law meant — that the solution to boredom is idleness, idle talk, and the quest to become a busy body — then I still respectfully disagree with her and will see her next holiday where I’ll try my best to engage in talk that is not idle about this subject. But if my bride’s  mom rather meant that good girls should never be bored because the minds of good girls are not in themselves boring, are imaginative, are generative, and do bore to the center of any subject to find there hiding any base level good, rather than dying from letting any subject bore through their skulls so that it bores said girls to tears, then I absolutely agree.

Said better: only bored people bore me. And it’s not their boredom, but their fear of boredom that bores me. FDR might as well have said that there’s nothing boring but boredom itself for whatever you can say about the folk who survived the Great Depression, you cannot call them bored.

Over the next week, I’m going to talk about making brave art and making art bravely and today that means talking about boring people.

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I raise my voice to defend boring people today. Byron divided humankind into boring people and bored people, talking as if he were in the know, as do many hipsters today, here in the late teens of the early 21st century. To be in the know, as in to know you’re not boring (and therefore cool or hip or interesting — which is a completely useless word in most situations since Socrates keeps the interest of very wise beggars and methods for cheating golf scores at no-name golf courses keeps the interest of rich fools ), to know you’re not a boring person is to be bored. And that’s true. The most bored people in my life are those most concerned with finding new interests and new ways to be interesting and new ways to be new. They forget that there’s no new way to be new other than to not be old and the only way to not be old is to let all that’s old renew you. After all, the only way to feel brand new after a bath is to use good old fashioned water, not some new method of tar sands or used motor oil. They’re bored because they never bore deep enough into the first things that interest them in order to become interesting to those who deeply know those same intersts. They are literally bored — they’ve let so many things start the process of boring down deep into their souls that they have literally become bored to death, for what was left of their personality leaks out into the things that momentarily caught their interest or the interests of others.

So when Byron said there’s boring people and then there’s bored people, he left out the very obvious fact that courage and honor and joy emanate from boring people while the bored all rally around their cowardice, their shame, and their despair — for those are exactly the qualities that lead to the boredom Byron himself wore like the merit badge on the cub scout who quits two weeks into learning about scout’s honor and all the work it implies. Ironically, it’s the badge that proves they memorized the honor pledge. To memorize honor only for the sake of showing someone else’s shame is shameful. To memorize courage only for the sake of showing how everyone else is a coward is cowardly. To memorize joy only for the sake of showing how you see through everyone’s joy is to not be joyful, but to be a see-through desperate little creature. Bored people are too cowardly to stick with the things that bore them. Bored people are too shameful to stick to their vows. Bored people despair over the lack of joy in the world — a lack of joy they alone create by ignoring how boring old things could have given them joy.

The boring person through their starstruck joy, their sacred longing, their deep obsessions about which they never shut up and are not afraid to share — this person lives inside a poem.

The bored person at best amounts to prose. And often they amount to little more than the sort of prose found in the answer cards of the game Trivia Pursuit.

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Take any hipster in Williamsburg or Bushwick or some midwestern suburb of a large metro area and ask them to spend a week of twelve hour days untangling jewelry from one massive knot of gold and silver chains. They’ll call it a nuisance, an inconvenience, boring, and tedious. It’s tedious to them not because they’re an interesting person, but an uninterested one. It’s not because they’re cool, but because their heart is solid ice. They don’t scoff at the tangled chains because they’re bold critics of entanglement, but because they have no boldness. They don’t shy from the task because they’re contented artists, but because nothing pleases them. When you’re the kind of person whom nothing pleases, eventually you get to have whatever you please:

Nothing.

Meanwhile the bore will have untangled miles of silver and gold from that selfsame jewelry box and imagined those golden ropes to be lashing of airships and those silver strings to be promises of fairies and both braided together into the binding chords from the wedding of leprechauns. The boring person’s stronger than the rest of us: he’s a god, for the gods delight in monotony and fairies love each nightfall as if it were the first and God makes all dandilions brand new. The bored person sees a weed. The boring person sees dandlion wine, which is the title of a book on Illinois nostalgia by the most boring person who wrote novels to ever hail from my homestate, Ray Bradbury. He also happens to be the best.

And double meanwhile, the bored person will have taken a cleaver to the golden tangle and not even stop to hear the poetry of coincidence echo between their act and that of Alexander the Great who first cut the Gordian knot and then came to the end of everything and wept for lack of one more interesting thing to conquer, one more interesting thing to claim as his and his alone in the only way you can: by ruining it for everyone else. The bored person will not see that in cutting the inconvenient and tedious knot of gold and silver they’ve also destroyed a piece of craftsmaship and lessened the weight — and therefore even the base utilitarian economic value — of the precious metals. In fact all value will be gone precisely because they had no interest — for if any stock in anything will accrue and compound in interest, it must first have the devoted interest and attention of some boring person manically obsessing over it in quite as Steve Jobs did with circuits, Elon Musk did with rockets, and Dickens did with stories written just for Christmastide.

It takes a boring person to truly be original. In fact, an experiment by London, Shubert (my clan representing), and Washburn in a 1972 issue of Journal of Creative Behavior showed that boredom’s related inversely to intelligence. Intelligent people get bored quicker than others. However, those people also wielded the boredom to fuel their creativity in coming up with more and better answers to an open-ended problem. A follow up study in 2014 through Creativity Research Journal had the following abstract:

Boredom has traditionally been associated with a range of negative outcomes, both within the workplace and outside it. More recently, however, it has been suggested that boredom can have positive outcomes, one of which might be increased creativity. This study addressed this proposition by examining the relationship between boredom and creative potential on a range of tasks. Two studies were carried out; the first involved 80 participants taking part in either a boring writing activity or not (control group) followed by a creative task. The second study involved a further 90 participants who varied in the type of boring activity they undertook (either a boring written activity, a boring reading activity, or a control) and the type of creative task that followed. Results suggested that boring activities resulted in increased creativity and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances (such as convergent tasks) than boring written activities. The role of daydreaming as a mediator between boredom and creativity is discussed and implications are outlined.

In other words, the most boring people — those who took in the most through reading, daydreaming, and seeking out creative solutions to complex problems — had a higher creative output afterwards.

As I said before, with the bored all value is gone because of dispossession.

But the willfully boring person — the person who digs deep and takes hold of boredom — ends up adding value.

The truth is that even your most prized possession — to truly be a prized possession — must first be possessed by your soul and mind for some specific, higher end. The opposite is a dispossession, of course, as the child who becomes disinterested in a toy and so disposes of it. That is to say the reason we’re the most disposable society in history with more landfills than Rome had marble is not because we are boring but because we are bored. We don’t spend boring hours giving our spirit over to anything long enough to truly possess it. And because of that, we are disposing of every unhip, uncool, uninteresting thing we find which of course includes our very selves. The end of all bored people is to find that they are too cool for even themselves. If they are a bored food critic, they eat themselves. If they are a bored building critic, they blow themselves up — not to point too fine a point on it, but the worst terrorists in civil society are not jihadists or crusaders, but real estate developers and the architectural critics who applaud them simply because they’re making something new. For this is how New York lost Penn Station and almost lost Grand Central — the American school of architecture is obsessed with blowing up buildings.

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The bored person’s wrong: everything’s poetical. That’s true. That solid. It’s not a turn of phrase or a trick or even an argument, it’s just a bedrock fact of life. You might try to argue with the fact that everything’s poetry — you might even want to try to use words to argue it — but even those words were first poems. For instance in my freshman speech class in college, I had a professor named Hafer. I enjoyed this man Hafer, but his bias of wealth and privilege couldn’t hear most of the things this white trash young man had to communicate. Part of it was a failure in audience analysis on my part: I should have talked more the language of information rather than the language of intimacy and spoken to him as a rich old man rather than as I would to a fellow poor young revolutionary.

That said, he assigned us all an object speech like every speech and rhetoric teacher I’ve had since the sixth grade — it makes you wonder if these teachers realize the depths of their redundancies or even communicate to one another. In any case, we were to use an object we treasured and show the class why it meant the world to us. And students brought their petty shirts from favorite sports teams and their favorite stuffed animal that they’d had since childhood and videogames and movies and all manner of things that had personal stories. They all took him figuratively. I took him literally and so I brought a pen. And not even a nice pen, a used rollerball like you can find in any banker’s or realtor’s or pastor’s office across the country. And I told him so in front of the whole class. I talked about what great works like Little Women and Dickens had been written with a common pen. About how the Declaration of Independence on which their sport shirts and childhood toys depend had been signed with a pen. About precisely why the pen is mightier than the sword and how that made the mass of men better armed than any military in history. That the very Bible this man held up as his one guiding light would have never existed without reed and ink. And I sat down.

And he gave me an F.

Because I’d used something small. He’d wanted me to bring a horse, I suppose, and talk about how I’d brushed it for a year and not about how it had charged the Somme. He’d wanted me to bring a globe and talk about how it had been used by educated folk like him to find coastlines and not by children in slums to compare to the lowliest basketball so that kids might dream of playing sport with worlds. He told me I couldn’t extract the world from a pen. He wanted me to be like himself and told me to stop being poetical. He practically implied that I should take a common name like Hafer and realize that not everything is poetry.

But even Hafer is poetry.

For a Hafer, in High German, was a grower and dealer of oats, typically of Jewish descent. His name alone betrayed him. He was bored because I was boring to the heart of pen and name. For what is an oat dealer except the man who feeds the world? Whatever Joseph was when he rose to the second highest seat of authority in all of Egypt — and therefore the empire that ruled the world under Pharaoh — he was an oat dealer. Whatever Rome depended upon when it marched over Greece, it depended upon oats. You couldn’t have a single sickly maiden in Shakespeare without oatmeal. Every animal sacrifice in Jerusalem up until Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered a hog on the alter had been felt with oaten hay and the kind of alfalfa they grow in my hometown in Southern Illinois. When the Tavastians fought the Novgorods and Karelians in what is now Finland, you’d better believe they did so while eating that same boring oaten bread. Even the bored hipster third wave coffeshops of Williamsburg have become too cool for their soy milk and almond milk and goat’s milk and have moved on to oat milk. You practically cannot eat parkin oat cake of Lancashire and Yorkshire without it being Guy Fawkes night which celebrates a revolutionary defender of catholic monarchy who tried to bomb parliament. Where would Goldilocks and the Three Bears be without their porridge? How would Scottish invalids of the 1800’s survived their bleak and weary winters without their oatmeal stouts to sip on? Even though the Nazis themselves tried to stamp out Jewish culture, you can bet right up until the morning the key turned on the last gas chamber that they had sat down to a meal of streussel that had been invented by some long forgotten Jewish Hafer.

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Again, this isn’t some play on words to trick bored people into the sort of poetical boring I’m claiming comes from all common folk. Even if it could be argued that the word “post office box” was unpoetical, a real post office box isn’t. It’s the place where the last romantic lovers in America and the last true friend we have irrevocably commit their words in a vow, knowing the moment that flap closes and the letter slides down, those words will not be touched by anyone including themselves. It’s romantic because it’s both brief and irreversible. And it’s poetry. Even if it could be argued that the word “gravestone” was unpoetrical, a real gravestone isn’t. It is the place we mark the place where the dead are buried, where we etch their very names in stone as a memento of their legacy for archeologists yet to be born of those yet to be born, conscious that we must not tread over them lightly, that we must visit them mournfully, that we must wait diligently for the day they rise up from those little bits of land. Were this false, then tell me why Greenwood Cemetery is the quietest place in New York with the least foot traffic?

My point, again, is simply that if you think the name “Hafer” is prose — if you think that a gravestone is prose — it’s because you’re too bored with your literary refinements and your hipster addictions to newness. And the best example I can give to the contrary is the man in my neighborhood most often accused of being boring.

I love this man. And I hate it when this man gets made fun of by other houseguests of mine, particularly behind his back. They make fun of this man because he talks incessantly about three things: opera, rock and roll, and nerdy movies (many of which are horror films). And he talks all the time to the extent that most people can’t get a word in edgewise.

By why would they want to?

There are two responses to this kind of person. One is to be bored. That’s the response of most people. Most people act bored around him, too cool for him, too jaded to see his beauty, too hip to listen.

The other is to bore right down along with him, to follow his train of thought down the rabbit hole, and in boring right down there with him, to see the light of his soul. I have learned more of Percival and Opera culture in six months than I have in the rest of my life. I have learned more of classic rock and of old films than I have ever thought I could learn. And I have learned how these things make the world much better through this man’s eyes — the best part is that he writes of all three on his site, joining them together in a seamless unity that can only be described as him.

The opera crowd, of course, is bored with this man. Some of them have revoked his press passes. Certainly he will never get a column over at the New York Times — he doesn’t fall in line and fit the elitist culture of bored folk that hurl out bad reviews like politicians in parades hurl hard candies at the faces of small children. Then again, that selfsame opera crowd will complain about how opera is dying and how younger generations don’t go to the opera anymore and about how to be cool and hip and interesting again. They’ll try their best to figure out how to draw in folk like me who would never in a million years go to the opera unaided, unattended. I have never in my life read a piece about opera in any paper in any region of the world.

But the moment I learned that they and others like them were bored with this one man of my neighborhood, I decided to be boring right along with him. I decided to follow him down the rabbit hole.

And this year I plan to go to my first opera. And I plan to be boring down deep into that ancient story of Percival and see just how it might renew me.

No boring subject exists. Not even at the Metropolitan Opera.

Just bored people.

I’d much rather be boring than bored.

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