“Mama, isn’t pucely the puceliest pucely you ever did puce?”
Pucely—a derivative of pussy—is what our seven-year-old daughter calls the cat. She is in love with the cat. (“Oh my God!” she cries, rushing at houseguests with the cat in her arms, her nose buried in his fur. “You have got to smell my pussy!”) Now she is lying on our couch on her back, bare-chested in shorty pajama bottoms. She appears to be watching the ceiling fan. “Isn’t he, Mama?”
“But isn’t he the very puceliest?”
“The very,” I say. “Do you want me to help you find something to do?”
“No.” She scratches her mosquito-bitten ankles. “I don’t want to do anything.” At least not anything but gurgle in the back of her throat a long, low sound that’s like a cross between growling and gagging.
I used to make the exact same sound. I also used to make a different sound using a lollipop that I sucked vibratingly against the side of my cheek. And one through my trumpeted-together lips, cheeks puffed out, that sounded like a grass whistle being blown by an elephant, but softly. “Mom, she’s doing it again.” I drove my older brother crazy—but no crazier than I drove myself, so it seemed fair enough.
My husband and I laughed recently when the Mad Men mom—with her comically retro exasperation—says to a restless child, “Only boring people are bored.”
Indeed. And also: Bored people are boring. It’s the behavioral equivalent of humidity: a vague clamminess that drapes itself around you like a cloak knitted from the damp wool of torpor. Bored people complain and make weird mouth sounds and memorize the Sears Wish Book like they expect to be tested on it. (Training bras, page 23, Barbie Styling Head, real pretend make-up sold separately, page 60.) Also, there’s the nausea. I don’t mean it in some kind of Sartrian existential way—just that my memories of childhood boredom are often twinned with my memories of feeling like I might barf.
For example: the record player. Home with the flu, my brother and I would sprawl on the living-room floor while the Beatles’ Red Album turned around and around the hi-fi; we lay back-down on the carpet or cheek-down on the wood; we watched the dizzifying vinyl; we studied the liner notes, like British-Invasion scripture that we already knew by heart. We had a comprehensive mental catalogue of the lyrics, even if we didn’t understand them. (Did you know, for instance, that “Norwegian Wood” is about something less like the Scandinavian forest I’d always pictured than like birch IKEA bookcases? Me neither.) It was the only record that we had, and listening to it was not the background to what we were doing; it was what we were doing.
“Love Me Do,” “Paperback Writer,” “Day Tripper,” “Eleanor Rigby.” (Was her actual face in a jar by the door?) To hear those songs even now is to be plunged into a kind of queasy ennui born of repetition crossed with both tedium and illness. Bang bang Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon my head—but dully.
And then there was the car. Road trips meant a single sickening piece of original-flavor Trident and listening to my parents listen to the metallic top-of-the-hour news jingle. (Dee dee di-dee dee. “1010 WINS news. You give us twenty-two minutes, we’ll give you the world.” Deedle-y dee dee, deedle-y dee dee.) If it was raining, you could lean your cheek against the glass to watch the drops gather and skid, gather and skid, the boredom itself gathering up into a kind of carsickness that occasionally had to be barfed out the window.
Boredom is like a fever dream, like the way you feel staring at the wallpaper’s repeated pattern while you lie sweaty in your sickroom, listening to the clinking silverware and muted laughter of life happening elsewhere. Bored thoughts flap around like a fish on the deck of a sailboat that’s going nowhere in a windless bay. “But sometimes it feels good to be bored, right?” I ask the kids now.
Ben says, “I think if it feels good then that’s not boredom. It’s the difference between wanting to not do anything, which is nice, versus there not being anything you want to do, which is being bored.” Boredom is that agitated space between relaxation and action: Dialed down, it can become a pleasant kind of inertia or meditative stillness, where it feels good to sit quietly with your own thoughts; cranked up a notch, it can produce creative release. But that middle place is the boredom itself—restlessness with no movement. A dull and desperate longing for something else, something more or less.
It’s a strange kind of luxury, boredom—a luxury full of loss. Read the Little House on the Prairie books with your kids, and you just can’t help envying the absence of boredom: They are simply too busy starving to death and having a fire-baked potato explode in their eye and chasing locusts off their crops to experience a moment’s ennui. The kids like to imitate them: “We each got an orange and a wooden button, and it was the best Christmas ever!”—but they envy the inherent meaningfulness of Laura and Mary’s lives, these pioneer children who were never stuck at a birthday party sticking foam die-cuts to a visor with tacky glue. Even my own childhood now feels quaintly creative. We did not have endless bags of rainbow-colored chenille stems to bend and discard; we had my dad’s actual white pipe cleaners, and you could take just enough to shape a pair of glasses—five—before he’d notice them missing. We had rubber bands and tinfoil and 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, which I read while laughing Fiddle Faddle out of my nose.
Which is not so different from my kids. Ben can spend an entire day reading Far Side comics in his pajamas or picking Brandi Carlile songs out on the piano. Birdy eventually thuds to the carpet for her cat-talking, fan-watching stupor, and is motivated by this act of gravity to get out the colored pencils and draw a picture of her Care Bears jigsaw puzzle. Then she builds a Lego battleship. Then she wanders outside to arrange bark and moss into a house for the fairies, which she situates next to a toadstool “in case it rains and they need an umbrella.”
I am not trying to sound like one of those crafty-mama blogs that makes you want to kill yourself, the kind you bookmark one day because you think that putting out a wooden bowl of felt gnomes sounds like a good idea (“felt gnomes?” you add vaguely to your to do list), but then you unbookmark it the next when you realize that the bowl is supposed to get refilled every morning with a different inspiring and wool-based activity and it is just too fucking much to deal with. And yet. You do have to learn boredom, learn to live with it, to manage it with the power of your own mind, without recourse to video games or bungee jumping or sniffing glue or starting a nuclear war or date raping your roommate’s girlfriend. The most dangerous people we know are the least able to sit still, to be inside an absence of motion: they are the most inclined to leave their families, to be addicts, to keep the TV on twenty-four hours a day, to kill themselves. But to manage boredom quietly? That’s one of life’s great skills: to allow its nothingness to resolve into wonder, imagination, illumination, or mindfulness, like a blurry picture that focuses suddenly into beauty. It’s a kind of inoculation against catastrophic restlessness.
Also, it prepares you for having kids: what to expect when you weren’t expecting your whole life to turn into Waiting for Godot, with Godot himself turning out to be almost as boring as the waiting. Captive under a nursing baby, you call upon all your car-tripping skills, all your floor-lying practice. The baby poops and cries and spits up in your hair, and it is all one big long meditation, half way between tedium and franticness.
(“Wake me if I actually do anything,” Ben said recently, watching a very long video we’d taken of him as a newborn, kicking microscopically on his changing table.) The baby wants to play Candy Land and Hi-Ho! Cherry-O and some weird zoo game where you’re both dying dolphins, and you breathe in and out slowly through your nose and notice the way the sunlight is catching the down along those ripe peaches of her biceps. The baby wants to read Maisy’s Bedtime and Maisy’s Morning on the Farm and Where is Maisy? and your brain threatens to contract and shrivel into a dried pea rattling around your skull, but instead you inhale the baby’s summer-smell scalp that is pressed fragrantly against your face, (Also you occupy your mind with estimating Lucy Cousin’s net worth.) The baby wants you to sing the ABCs, but like a lullaby, no not like this—here she warbles like Katharine Hepburn calling to loons on Golden Pond—like that, yes, again. Again, Mama. Again. And you sing and you sing and her darkly lashed eyes flutter and close, the beloved rose of her face open and slack in sleep.
The baby, bored, wants first to clobber you with her berserkness (“Booty dance, booty dance, booty dance shakes a booty in your face!”) and then to talk boringly about the cat some more. “He’s pretty Pucely, right, Mama?”
“I know. But Mama?”
“What if Pucely forgot that he hadn’t pooped yet? And then he pooped on your face!”
“Yup,” I say. “That would be something.”
“Right?” she says, excited. “Right? What if he pooped right on your face!“
“Do you need me to help you find something to do?” I ask again, and she says,
“No. I’m pretty busy.”
Author’s Note: “Do you think a piece about boredom is going to be boring?” I asked Michael as I was working on this, and he said, “It depends how boring it is.” Hm. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be boring. But is it weird to be so nostalgic about boredom?” I asked, but he had already glazed over. I am boredom personified, it turns out. Hallelujah.
Brain, Child (Fall 2010)