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Hey! Pay Attention This Month

July 04, 1999|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No yawning until after July 31. This is National Anti-Boredom Month, brought to you by the Boring Institute, which is headquartered in hip, happening Maplewood, N.J.

Normally, the institute whiles away the hours spoofing boring celebrities and popular culture. For example, its list of "most boring people of the millennium" includes Marcel Proust, author of the deadly dull seven-volume "Remembrance of Things Past," and Vladimir K. Zworykin, who invented the first television system but later declared, "I would never let my children come close to this thing."

Other Boredom Institute targets include Monica Lewinsky, the Spice Girls and movies like "The Avengers" and "Meet Joe Black."

But National Anti-Boredom Month is a more serious affair, designed to call attention to possible links between boredom and various social ills, such as crime, divorce and drug abuse.

Boredom causes people to get into trouble, says institute founder Alan Caruba, a former public relations counselor. To ward it off, he prescribes such antidotes as reading ("Never go anywhere without a newspaper, magazine or book"), hobbies and getting out of the house ("If your life is being spent mostly with a television set, you're in trouble").

The idea is to keep your mind occupied with positive activities, because the brain craves stimulation, he says.

Another approach is found in a 1982 published report about anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. When asked whether the best remedy for boredom was playing a new video game, creating an artwork unlike any other or shelling peas, Bateson chose shelling peas, saying that the endless pursuit of novelty leads directly to boredom.

"It's one of those problems which is made worse by efforts to solve it," she explained. Although she acknowledged that humans require stimulation to grow and develop, she said modern culture has carried the principle to an extreme. As an example, she mentioned her daughter complaining that "breakfast is boring."

"Who taught her that?" Bateson asked. "Mr. Kellogg and Mr. Post [have convinced] the American public that breakfast should be a thrilling meal at which things snap, crackle and pop." Thus, her daughter feels distress when she is served Cream of Wheat for the second time in a week, even though "much of the human race eats the same food every day at all meals."

In effect, boredom is a culturally learned experience, Bateson argued. Another example is pornography. A hundred years ago, the sight of a bare ankle could stir excitement. Now we have kiddie porn. "You have to make it dirtier or it loses its thrill," she said.

Which brings us back to shelling peas. At least one solution to boredom, Bateson said, is to drop out of the novelty chase and find rhythmic, routine activities that give the mind time to think and reflect. Ritual fulfills an important function, she said.

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