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A Case of Boredom

A RIGOROUS AND LYRICAL EXAMINATION OF A RELATIVELY NEW ILLNESS
DISCUSSED
Death, Industriousness, Food, Theory, Sex, Shame, Memory, The Inner Ear, Treatment
by Ghita Schwarz
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Case of Boredom

Ghita Schwarz
10 Snaps

Some time ago I discovered boredom. Or ra­ther, boredom discovered me, moving into my body like a happy para­­site. Soon boredom took over every­thing, ate at every action and activity, reading, talking, eating, even sleeping.

There was no knock at the door: Boredom Has Arrived. Instead, I noticed one day that nothing seemed worth saying. Not I love you, not I’m tired, not Time to get up. In my dreams there was silence: I was bored in sleep. I’d know I was bored in sleep because I’d wake up and have no energy to remember a dream. Before sitting up to turn off the alarm, I’d remember that I was bored, that there was no reason to wash and dress. For a few minutes my sense of obligation—go to work, you have so much work!—would battle my desire to stop moving, and the internal struggle itself would provide enough fuel to get me to the coffee machine, to the shower, to my toothbrush, to my clothes, comb, coffee cup, shoes. I’d start feeling bored again as soon as I touched my coat. Outside I would look at the street and the schoolchildren hopping along with their harried parents, forget the boredom for a second, and then remember again as I went down the steps and walked to the tree-lined corner of my subway station. I would wait on the platform, then find a seat on the always-empty G line, the only line that never touches the island of Manhattan. I knew that fact from when everything about my neighborhood and my job and my life was exciting. On the train I would hope I could take out my book from my messenger bag. If I managed it, if I decided to read rather than stare at the other passengers and contemplate my boredom, if I entered a different world during the half-hour commute, I would have a better day. If not, I would sit and look at the other passengers, amazed that they weren’t screaming from boredom.

When I exited the subway I would check my cell phone to see if “something” had “happened” while I was underground. This was the phrase my family used for emergencies. If no message icon appeared, I’d call my sister just in case.

I could hear the fear in her voice almost before she started speaking. “Has something happened?” she would say, tight and calm.

“No,” I would answer. “Nothing has happened.”

Bored unto Death

Our father was dying. As bored as I was living my everyday life, my father was more bored still in his struggle toward death. He had had a heart attack nine years before, followed by bypass surgery and a rare procedure in which the surgeon cut out the dead parts of his heart. Now he was going through the slow deterioration for which there was, as one emergency-room doctor put it, “only so much modern medicine can do.” He had lasted two years past that pronouncement, a period when I began to muse that he might be the exception to the rule.

“What rule?” said a friend.

“The one about everyone ending up dead.”

But on the last visit to the ER, for internal bleeding following a bad reaction to pneumonia antibiotics, something seemed different. He himself began to believe—rather than just fear—that he would die. He would mutter and call, “God bless you, God bless you” and, on occasion, “Oy, mam­me.” A nurse reported that he slept in twenty-minute spurts, waking up each time in a state of shaking confusion, begging for his wife and daughters. “Why is he so anxious?” she said.

We decided to spring him and found an inexperienced resident to sign off on the discharge. We thought he had a couple of weeks. But weeks became months. At home in his bed, he entered a lethargic half-sleep state, inter­rupted by regular coughing and moaning, frequent shouting at my mother, occasional smiles for a cautious visit from his two-year-old granddaughter. My mother’s life became just as boring as his: focused on his food, his sleep, his medicine, his agony.

“He’s all alone,” she said, lying on the couch, hand over her eyes.

Our visits barely alleviated the loneliness. From his curled position at the edge of his bed, he would raise his head when I entered the room, and with a rasp between en­thusiasm and despair, he would cry out my name. I could hear in his voice the hope that something would change now that I had ar­rived. But nothing did. I would sit in a narrow chair, or sometimes on his bed, and recount to him the only thing that interested him: an anecdote about my sister’s child. “She’s adorable!” he would ex­claim, over and over. “She’s ad­orable!” When
I got too bored by the tale I was repeating, I would stop. Speaking, the content of our speech, made the time no less boring, and so he would lay in silence, and I would sit in silence, until I started again.

“I never imagined this would happen to him,” said my mother. He had lived a life of death escapes: from beatings by the local gentile boys in Poland, starvation and murder in concentration camps, ty­phus, tuberculosis, a postwar car ac­cident that had killed three others and left him with a limp. The fact that he and his heart and lungs and kidneys remained alive, we had made ourselves believe, was the re­sult of a life force that conquered the murderous impulses of others, the random disasters of fate, and the mortal illnesses that would have felled many far younger than he.

Yet now he was a ghost before death. I read once about a subset of residents of the displaced persons camps after the war, young men and women lying on dirty cots, unable to rise and work, unable to search, moving only to eat or to procure items of donated clothing. These were the severely traumatized refugees who could not see a future, the ones so exhausted from surviving that the ideas of marriage, giving birth, making money, playing cards, seemed like tasks for another species.

My image of my father and his companions during that time is just the opposite. Accompanied by a friend from home, he is skinny but relatively healthy, bicycling around bombed-out Germany trying to find his missing sister and brothers. But now it seemed he had joined the other group, the bored people.

It may seem that boredom makes time pass with an agonizing slowness, that boredom makes time last. But boredom is really the enemy of time. It kills the future and denigrates the past. My father lay in his bed, unwilling to get up and brush his teeth, shave, or eat more than a few bites of food. Everything we asked of him was boring, too much work, and for what? No effort would diminish the futureless loneliness.

Boredom and Industriousness

Once, I had been a hard worker, with responsibilities and obligations that felt good to fulfill. But when boredom set in all I could do was look busy. I was a lawyer in a ­high-volume legal aid office. Actual casework towered before me, but
I could not open a file at my desk. Each morning I closed the door to my little office, played with my phone, perhaps made a call or two on behalf of an unfortunate client. If a hearing approached I would wait until the subway ride to familiarize myself with the facts, in the hope that the novelty would push me to pay attention during the proceedings. This seemed to work, and the fact of its working made me even more disconsolate: Victory in a case often had nothing to do with my preparation, or rightness, or co­herence of strategy. It de­pended on the hearing officer’s mood, perhaps the client’s race and physical size, the willingness or re­luctance of the opposition to lie. While I could not say that my laziness helped, it did not hurt. The utter randomness of success and failure made success and failure boring.

So at work I did not work. To make the day pass I surfed the web. Although I was beginning to have some difficulty with the details of my clients’ cases, I could retain ar­cane information from celebrity gossip sites, and I soon developed a solid skill for guessing blind items: Which he-man’s successful wife caught him smooching a male underling? Which starlet is shopping for prenatal vitamins? She doesn’t look pregnant, and experts say the vitamins help soften the hair of heroin users.

When I ran out of celebrities,
I went to political blogs. When I ran out of those, I turned to Google.
I Googled my friends and my sister, and the sisters-in-law of my ­brother-in-law. I Googled my co-workers, my boss, and my allergist.
I Googled my dentist and discovered he had had his license suspended for some months in 1998, due to a conviction for grand larceny. He was banned from the Medicaid program for life. I started to do some “advanced searching” to in­vestigate the crime, but then stopped, bored. He was an excellent dentist. Why create hassles?

When I was bored enough,
I would try a brain exercise: resuscitating the memory of unboredom.
I had once worked as a case manager in an urban mental health system. That had been exciting. A college experience reading a feminist anthropology essay—the first time something academic had seemed as interesting as a novel. Moments, perhaps months, with a couple of early boyfriends.

Maybe that time in my life had passed, the time when small, ordinary happiness provided enough fuel. Perhaps the only alternative now was daily crisis and panic. But I didn’t have the energy to look for it. Plus, I was convinced my boredom would outsmart me. It would find a way to stick around.

Boredom and Food

I  went for dinner at the home of college friends. To me they had a nonboring life: nice apartment, little boy, brand-new infant.

“How’s work?”

“Ugh,” I said. “Boring. Let’s not talk about it.”

“Any new job prospects?”

“No. It’s so boring it’s taking over everything. It’s like stress. I can barely eat lunch, sometimes not even dinner. Everything I eat tastes like nail polish remover.”

“Nail polish remover?”

I had gone too far and felt embarrassed. “No, I’m exaggerating,” I said. “Things taste OK, even good for the first few bites. But after that, it’s nail polish remover. Nothing.”

“That sounds like something,” she said. “You know, poison.”

Give me poison! my father had shouted a few nights before.

“I didn’t mean it like that,”
I said. “I just meant it tastes like something I wouldn’t feel like eating.” I stopped.

“You look thin,” she said.

It was true. I was losing perhaps an ounce for every pound my father lost. His body was wasting. He had refused to eat in the hospital, but we thought he would relent once he came home. But every moment still felt the same to him. He seemed unable to feel hunger or even to taste, and my mother stopped cooking Jewish foods and relied instead on granola, meat loaf, eggs, anything bland that would put on the weight. Still, nothing seemed to stay inside his body, and he fell to 120 pounds, then 110, then 100.

My friend was looking at me, concerned but not yet alarmed. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m just bored,” I said. “My whole body is bored.”

There was an odd look on her face. I added, “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just a daytime form of insomnia. I wish there were a pill for it.”

“You sound depressed,” she said.

“I suppose,” I said. “But this is kind of a variation. I’ve been depressed before. This is the first time I need to say to myself, ‘I’m so bored, I’m so bored,’ eleven million times a day.”

“Have people written about it?” she asked.

Boredom Theory

I  was going through an experience that no one I knew understood. Sure, my pals had been bored. But they did not seem to recall the experience as one that colored every part of existence; they thought of boredom as an ir­ritation rather than an illness. Was something uniquely wrong with me? Or could it be that boredom had the power to erase the ­memory of boredom—that my friends had felt true boredom but just couldn’t remember? In any case, the reaction to my dinnertime confession got me thinking. I started to do some re­search in the hopes of finding some company for my misery. A junkie needs fellow sufferers. Maybe I’d figure out a way to get clean.

I hadn’t gotten to the third page of a novel in months. But reading about boredom promised something new. On my bookshelf was Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness (1930), a set of essays I remembered liking in college. Chapter four, “Boredom and Excitement,” opened grandly: Bore­­dom is “one of the great motive powers throughout the historical epoch.”

One sentence, and already I felt a sense of importance and relief. I was not alone. More, boredom was not just a pervasive problem, but a “distinctively human” one. Animals might feel anger, fear, attachment, but boredom? I thought of my sister’s dog, legs folded, chin on the floor, waiting for her masters to appear. No, boredom was a higher emotion of consciousness, available only to superior beings. The pain of boredom was so great that it had brought about all sorts of evil­doings, from witch hunts to alcohol­ism to wars and pogroms. Witness the Americans in Abu Ghraib, tormenting their prisoners. Were they afraid of the men they tortured? Gathering information? Convinced of the rightness of their actions? No. They were bored.

But upon more careful reading, it seemed that boredom for Russell was not an evil in and of itself. Rather, it was the “fear of it” that caused “at least half the sins of mankind.” Russell set out to conquer that fear.

It was clear that Russell had never been madly bored. Boredom, he thought, was really not so bad. Indeed, it was crucial to a healthy life, a form of rest, a way to pause from the endless stimulation of modern life, to let life lie fallow until it came time to begin the seeding. Boredom was even good for you. “Children should learn to live with monotony,” like a boiled vegetable that must be eaten before dessert.

And Russell was not alone. A Norwegian philosopher analyzed boredom as a place to loll about while waiting for a meaningful event that was sure to come. A British psychoanalyst saw boredom as an essential stage in child development, a desire to desire, a bland but necessary waiting for the next lovely event.

Who were these cheerful men? I had plenty of excitement; I craved real rest. I had conducted seven hearings in the last month, participated in nine weeks of a legal aid strike in the last year, visited the emergency room with my father sixteen times in the last decade. My boredom was not a fleeting few moments of thumb-twiddling but an existential condition, a conviction that purpose would never come. Their boredom was an are-we-there-yet car ride, a few drops of rain, a muddy garden where a child could dig around until skipping inside for a cup of cocoa. It had nothing to do with mine.

Boredom and Sex

The man I was occasionally sleeping with said that we were “see­ing each other.” I preferred the phrase “dating regularly.” I was not happy, and he did not appear to be either. We did not fight and had little to talk about. But I could spend hours of the day thinking about the night before, rewriting it so that it would make me feel more alive than the actual event.till, a part of me was attracted to Russell’s optimism. Toward the end of the essay, Russell declared that sex without love is empty. I was surprised to see a notion put forth by advice columnists appear in a book of philosophy. It gave the idea a certain legitimacy, if not truthfulness. For of course I did not believe that sex without love was empty. That is, I did not believe it in principle, although I did find it to be true in practice.

Not that the sex was disastrous, just… well, I couldn’t call it boring. Indeed, the experience was in­teresting in that I was unaccustomed to feeling so little re­­cognition of and attention to my naked person. We touched each other with a grim, soldierly ap­proach. We would kiss for a mo­ment. Our tongues would touch, but not too much, certainly not with any passion. I would rub his chest. He would touch one breast, then the other. I would stroke his back. He would reach between my legs. And so on, touching all the places he thought he was supposed to touch. I, in turn, would try to hint to him with my own hands what I wanted him to do: kiss my face, caress my neck. Perhaps in his refusal to respond to my hints, he was trying to hint to me too—Why touch his back? he might have thought. The most tender gesture he made was scratching the back of my scalp, as if I were a familiar dog. I thought of taking his hand and showing him what to do. I thought of asking him out loud to put his hand on me kindly, to act as if he got pleasure from the skin of my arm because it was mine. I thought about it a lot, but a lassitude would come over me and stop me from guiding. What difference would it make if he stroked my hair rather than scratched my head? He’d feel the same about me, and I’d feel the same about him. Bored.

I was not lonely, because ­“lone­ly” to me suggested yearning and wanting. I did not yearn and I did not want. Still we continued to see each other and date regularly.
I thought that spending time to­gether would alleviate at least the bore­dom of solitude—I’d have a little variety in my boredom.

It’s a common assumption, let’s say among American readers of pop psychology, that kids turn to sexual activity to relieve boredom, and that the escape into sex in turn fuels more boredom. It is thought that out of boredom young people will hop from partner to partner, never satisfied, dreading repetition.

But is sexual boredom really the problem of repetition? Don’t a lot of people actually like a rerun? To me the familiarity of sex with the same person was, at its best, the op­posite of boring. I loved as a child to hear the same story told over and over. The Story about Ping. Where the Wild Things Are. If the story speaks to you, notices you, you want to hear it again and again, each reading the same but different.

The Shame of Boredom

“Life, friends, is boring,” wrote John Berryman. “We must not say so.” The poem, No. 14 from the 1964 Dream Songs, goes on in the voice of its narrating character, Henry:

After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,

We ourselves flash and yearn,

And moreover my mother told me as a boy

(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored

means you have no

 

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no

inner resources, because I am heavy bored.

Once upon a time, there was a shame in being bored. It spoke of indolence and sloth, the weak inner resources disdained by Henry’s mother. Boredom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a minor sin, the subject of a confession, a symptom of ethical malaise, “a mark of moral defi­ciency, a sickness curable only with great effort.” So writes Patricia Meyer Spacks in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (1996). When boredom first ap­peared in an English dictionary, around 1760, it existed only as an inner state. Indeed, the word boredom ex­isted far before the term boring, whose emergence as a de­scriptive term seems to mark a shifting of responsibility from self to other. In Western culture the shame of boredom began to fade, replaced by the shame of being boring, failing to entertain, dulling society. After we got bored of blaming ourselves, sometime ar­ound the late nineteenth century, we discovered ourselves entitled to be interested. Hence our current need for roller coasters, safari rides, commercial breaks.

A bit of self-blame for boredom has stuck around, though. Contemporary boredom remains something to be overcome by one’s industry and hard work. Professional-class parents, fearful that too much open time will lead to drugs or empty sex (Bertrand Russell again), fill their kids’ schedules with classes and lessons, activities and sports. Boredom has become like fat: once thought of as a privilege of the rich, now a problem of the poor and a source of shame.

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so. Ever to confess now means you have no outer resources, you are condemned to a life without the means to take piano lessons, bungee jump, hike, learn Dutch. To avoid boredom, one must be challenged. No, one must “challenge oneself”—challenge must be controlled, contained, and purchased. A life of struggle—the kind not purchased, but thrust upon you—is boring and stupid. The world wants the struggling bored, the fat and poor bored, the old and sick bored, to shut up.

Lyrical Interlude

A  gust of boredom comes over me. If escape is futile, perhaps I should embrace the experience, think of metaphors, aestheticize the agony.

Boredom is a stagnant pool. It changes color and temperature even if it does not move. Boredom is a mechanical bronco, tossing and tormenting the rider, who goes nowhere.

Boredom is a priest urging you to confess, then exacting a terrible pe­nance: mockery, loneliness, shame, and, most cruelly, the need to confess again. I’m bored, I’m so bored.

A houseguest that will not leave. A dream that insists upon tel­ling itself to the unwilling listener.

Edible, pleasureless: Flat soda. Stale chocolate. Hard bread.

Boredom and Memory

My father’s quiet and reserve, his European dress and accent, the twenty years he had on my classmates’ fathers, all made him strange and almost glamorous. He had a pro­nounced limp, and when I was learning to walk I imitated it, left leg bearing the weight, right leg dragging behind. I paid scrupulous attention to his everyday actions, the way he laid out his ties or buttered his bread, the dutiful expression he wore while watching the local news every night. Observing him had been thrilling, each small event a clue to his thoughts.

Now I was the adult with mysterious things to do. He had a child’s excitement and disbelief when I appeared.

“Don’t be so shocked,” I would try to joke. “Wasn’t I here yesterday?”

“I don’t remember,” he would say.

His concentration, always ­wobbly, was vanishing altogether. He asked for coffee in the middle of the night. He asked my sister for the last name of her husband of five years, then asked again a moment later. One day he addressed me in Polish. He wanted something, but I couldn’t understand.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said. “I don’t speak Polish, remember?”

He asked me again, his voice louder.

“I’m sorry, Daddy,” I tried, emphasizing the word daddy, as if to telegraph I’m your daughter, the one to whom you spoke only English and a bit of Yiddish, no Polish, no goyische idiom. “Dad, I’ll get you whatever you want. Please tell me in English.”

Polish again, his face furious.

“Do you need help getting up? Tea? Bread?” I scraped around for some Polish nouns. “Mleko? Her­bata?”

He was shouting at me.

“Please speak in English, Daddy, please speak in English.”

At last he cried, “But I am speaking English!”

His eyes became suddenly large. He heard the difference between the English sentence he had just uttered and the Polish re­quests he had been making mo­ments before. He flopped back on the bed, defeated. He didn’t want anything now.

My mother took him to a neurologist.

The doctor led him in and began to ask questions. Who was the president?

“The father and the son.”

Did he mean Mr. Bush?

“Yes.”

What year was he born?

“1921.” That was the correct an­swer.

Where was he born?

Pause. “In the world.”

The doctor smiled, and my mother gave a nervous chuckle that turned into a longer fit of giggles.

“But where in the world?” the doctor tried.

My father didn’t answer.

My mother calmed herself. “Maybe if you tell the doctor what languages you speak, he’ll understand where you were born. You know, Yiddish, Polish, German.”

Still my father said nothing.

“All right,” said the doctor. “When did you come to the United States?”

My father answered quickly: “1933.”

“1933!” said the doctor. It was a summer day and my father was wearing a short-sleeved shirt; his forearms were bare, the blurred con­centration camp number visible. “If you had come here in 1933 you would have saved yourself a lot of trouble.”

My sister was horrified when my mother recounted the appointment.

“If he’s losing his memory, what does he have?”

I too was troubled. He liked naming years: 1931, the year his mother died. 1942, the year he was first taken to camp. 1956, the year he came to America, after an an­guished period of time waiting for a visa. How could he mistake it? He had been blocked from entering the country at first, the result of the car accident that had crippled one leg and rendered him a potential “public charge”—someone the U.S. would not want to accept. But once here he took on all the habits of an enthusiastic immigrant, buying American appliances, praising freedom and opportunity, voting in every single election, dragging me behind him into the curtained voting booth. Did his own chron­ology, his carefully rescued and rebuilt life story, mean nothing to him now?

My mother returned to the neu­rologist a few weeks later, ac­companied by my sister and me. We looked at pictures of my fa­ther’s brain. They indicated minor ir­regularities and swellings, perhaps a series of small strokes, but nothing to suggest the vast forgetfulness he was displaying.

The neurologist said: “The problem is as much psychological as medical.” Yes, he was a very sick man; yes, it was awful that it should come to this, but the misery of his existence was a choice, not a medical crisis. The doctor agreed to grant a new prescription, but really, all we could do was continue talking to him, hope that once in a while he would enter the futile conversation. In short, the neurologist seemed to conclude, his will—his rage at the fact of his dying—was the root of his problem.

But rage can keep you going. He’d had a lot of rage when he first became ill, and we believed it had extended his life, forcing him to remember how strong he was, pushing him to recount every instance of youthful prowess. But now the rage had lost its healing power, and the protest turned inward, destroying everything it found.

My father was so bored of dying that he could not remember his living.

We believed in his will. We had so convinced ourselves that his will had made him overcome all the past difficulties that we assumed once he lost it, it would all be over. It was not over. He continued to live and to die.

Could one die of boredom? Of course not. (That would have been interesting.)

Boredom and the Inner Ear

At work one day, I close the door to my little office and move a few file boxes into a corner. I spread my jacket on the dirty carpet and lay down with my head inside the coat lining, my hair fanning into the sleeves. The walls are a vomity pink, the ceiling a stained gray and white. My body is still, but everything seems to be moving: I am dizzy with boredom.

The Treatment of Boredom

We must not say so. We must not say so. She’s right, Henry’s mother: articulating boredom brings no relief.

But what about saying something, anything? The nineteenth-century women writers in Meyer Spacks’s study try to write their way out of the tedium of daily life. Sigmund Freud, as a young man writing letters to a somewhat in­constant friend, claimed that correspondence was what stopped him from contracting “cholera of ­deadly boredom.”

The bored who do not write, talk. Some seek a listener in ­therapy. The onetime shrink of Marilyn Monroe published a case study in 1953: On Boredom. Its subject is a twenty-nine-year-old, well-to-do mother, at home with four very young children. She is numb and uninterested, says the psy­choanalyst, but not quite de­pressed. In fact, this patient recovered from a bout of suicidal depression a year or two before, but no longer suffers from anything listed in a diagnostic manual. She drinks, she cheats on her husband with both men and women, she fasts, she binges. She tells the shrink she has experienced cunnilingus with dogs. Is she trying to see if he is awake, jolt him out of the boredom of listening?

Ah, but nothing can. The psychoanalyst reverts to jargon: “The patient’s primary libidinal orientation focused on her oral strivings,” he notes, accounting for her “wish to be sucked.” In this she is typical: “Most bored patients resort to oral activities.”

Theories at once abstract and technical dominate the text, written of course before the onset of second-wave feminism. The wo­m­an’s life of hours and days without adult conversation goes ig­nored. Then, out of nowhere, the analyst claims, the patient is cured, he claims, because of “positive transference”—a good relationship with the therapist himself, the rescuing prince—and, in an odd side note, with some serious shopping (a “beautiful vase,” a “pretty dress”). That’s where all her talk gets her: her boredom, so timeless, so static, is transformed into narrative, and the end of the narrative is a happy princess ending: a pretty dress.

We must not say so. Boredom insists that you keep quiet, even about boredom itself. Boredom must be curable. Boredom must end.

A Life Story

“I  hope it’s over soon,” my father said.

“You hope what is over?” I told myself that I wanted to hear whatever he said.

He recanted. “I hope I’m better soon.”

The drifting in and out of Polish seemed to have ceased, even with my mother. The neurologist had provided a new medicine; we continued to wait. All the adventures of his youth seemed like old-fashioned myths. His current dying refused to follow the rules of narrative.

A friend whose father had died of lung cancer described a surge of energy his father had the day before he died, leaving his bed to drive to a lady’s house over the shouts of his wife. My sister knew someone whose mother’s death had been predicted to the hour, a home nurse directing the family to hold her hand, talk her through it, let her “let go.”

There would be no cinematic, well-adjusted good-bye with my father. He was terrified of death and he did not want to “let go”; he would not even have understood the phrase, English, Yiddish, Polish, whatever. Indeed, his own words, his own wish for it to be over, caused him shame—he might desire the end of pain, but he was not refusing his pills or even hiding them under his tongue. He believed in living. So he was lucid and then not, hungry and then not, despairing and then not (repeatingly).

The phone rang at about 6:15 a.m. on a Tuesday. I half heard it, did nothing. Then a pause, and another series of rings. I leapt out of bed. It was my sister.

“Maybe five minutes,” she said.

In Conclusion

I  have no solution. I have no answer. I have no common definition. Boredom is like love, each person’s experience of it individual and particular, full of inside jokes and inarticulable sensations. Love and boredom have another thing in common: a sense that nothing can change, a lack of imagination. Love thinks the future feels just like the present, and boredom doesn’t believe in the future at all.

Then the future comes anyway, and suddenly there is no need to escape boredom, because boredom has disappeared on its own.

Yes, just like that, it ended. Or rather, it faded, first quickly, then slowly, then into nothing. The synopsis: My father died, at home. The promise was kept. Our words meant something. We felt the pain that brought relief and the relief that brought pain. I didn’t feel bored or think about boredom for weeks after, and when I did, the boredom seemed light and faint, a memory or a scar.

Class, we have learned nothing. I was not redeemed; I was not crushed. Boredom was, and then it wasn’t.

Why did it go? Boredom didn’t leave a note, so I can only speculate.

Rock, paper, scissors: grief beats boredom. Waiting for death had become a kind of pre-grief, yes, a pre–traumatic stress disorder for which the only cure was a trauma, the event itself. Then grief ­crowded boredom out, made it feel useless, unwanted, unnecessary, its victim al­ready defeated. Boredom’s work was done, and sickened by what it had wrought, it left. For if boredom is accompanied by shame, grief comes with pride, confidence, even righteousness. The mourner is re­spected and honored. The act of mourning becomes a way to praise the past. Boredom, with its insistence on denigrating the future, can’t breathe that kind of air.

Alternatively: the competition was too stiff, and boredom slunk away. Or: boredom wanted star bil­ling, refused to work in an ensemble of emotions. Diva! Arrogant bastard!

Or perhaps boredom just got bored and decided to take off for different hosts.

That’s right. Even boredom needs a break.

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