When I was in high school, a friend of mine (I’ll call him Todd, because that was, and presumably still is, his name) would call me at least once a week and say, “What’s up? I’m bored.”
Even at that age, I could barely fathom that condition. In our classes, sure; on the school buses we had to ride from our dreary suburbs carved out of the cornfields to our ugly, sprawling, rural high school; at some event or other our parents or teachers forced us to attend. But in our free time, after homework was done? How could I be bored when I had so much to read? My mother had been taking my younger brother and me to the public libraries in our town and the one next door since we’d moved to that ’burb when I was nine and he was six, and I never failed to emerge with a stack of books so tall I could barely carry it. Contemporary young adult novels, word play and puzzles, biographies of rock musicians – I loved it all, and I kept so many books on the coffee table, I drove my mom crazy when she tried to clean house: “Can’t you keep those in your room, and leave one down here on the table?”
“But I’m reading all of them!”
Who had time to be bored? When I grew tired of reading, I had my stereo and handful of records. I’d discovered the Beatles in junior high and was hooked on their hooks and harmonies and innovations, on John Lennon’s bad-boy growl and Paul McCartney’s Liverpool dance hall croon. And in the evenings some or all of our nuclear family gathered around our only TV, a good-sized color set at the narrow end of the 9-by-12 family room, and watched the endless string of Norman Lear situation comedies or M*A*S*H, Mom not-so-secretly drooling over Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character, Dad identifying with him. And we could enjoy the outdoors – by the time I hit high school, I no longer played with other kids, climbing the huge maple trees between the disused farm pastures behind our house, but occasionally I still sat in a lawn chair beneath the giant birch to read my latest copy of Rolling Stone.
Because I couldn’t fathom his feeling, Todd’s and my conversations soon became ritualized: “Hi! What’re you doing? I’m bored.”
“How can you be bored? Go read a book!”
“I hate reading,” Todd inevitably replied. At the time I considered this laziness, even a moral failing; fairly recently I realized he probably had dyslexia or another learning disability. In the era before social networking, we lost touch, then hung out a few times when I was home from grad school working on a master’s in creative writing and he’d finished an associate’s degree in accounting at the local community college and was transitioning from waiter in an intimate, white-tablecloth restaurant to a bookkeeper day job.
We’ve lost touch again, probably permanently, but I think of Todd every time I contemplate how inundated I feel. I’m now middle-aged, and the only times I’m bored are when I drive and when I’ve elected to attend a poetry or prose reading in a small auditorium and discovered that the writer’s work isn’t my cup o’ tea and it’s impossible to leave the venue without looking like a mannerless ass. Outside the workplace, I very seldom have to deal with tedium, because so much interests me. Not only has this not changed since I was a child, it’s gotten worse (or better?). I thought I had a lot to read when I was a young teenager – I couldn’t have imagined what would be available decades later. The offerings have grown exponentially: the personal computer and the internet were invented; I attended college and 2½ years of graduate school in liberal arts; and as an adult, I returned to the Spanish studies I began in high school.
What’s available online, from captions on clickbait cat pictures to newspapers from all over the world to academic journals, feels nearly unlimited. And now that I can read decently in Spanish, I feel even more inundated. Despite my high school and college instructors’ best attempts to kill it, my interest in literature, history, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, architecture, spirituality, and especially Latin American studies has grown enormously over the decades, and it only recently dawned on me that I’ll never have enough years to read all I want to. My undergraduate studies in journalism were perhaps what turned me into a generalist – I have a layperson’s understanding of many subjects. At this point, it’s a chicken-and-egg question: Did studying journalism get me interested in a variety of topics, or did being interested in many things as a child make me want to learn newswriting so I could share information with others?
In any case, I try to see my myriad interests as a blessing instead of a curse; these days, friends who feel similarly and I have conversations like this:
“Well, better overwhelmed than bored, I guess.”
“Yeah, I’d hate to be one of those people who does nothing but lie on the couch watching TV!”
And then we return to our day jobs, our 4,477 personal email messages (yes, that’s a real figure, from only three email folders of mine), our several writing/ translation/ publishing projects, our lists of hundreds of ideas for other projects, our homes, partners, spouses, kids, pets… however cluttered and stuffed and messy our days, we keep moving. Years ago when one of my friends was married and she and her husband had a young daughter and were working full-time, she used to write in her emails, “Our lives are very full.” I always thought that was the best way to say it.