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SUMMER: THE BACKSTORY

Midseason reflections on (yawn) boredom

Summer's lazy days may drone on, but at their close will be a longing for idleness.

August 05, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

The inexorable groan of the school year. No. 2 pencils and, oh, so many standardized bubbles to bubble, carpools to wait for, homework assignments to ignore and then endure. The same Tupperware lunch every, single, day. Alarm at 8. Burnt toast. Loading up the backpack.

Through it all, the dream of summer. A lust for sloth. Every morning a Sunday morning. To be nearly naked and irresponsible, too hot to move except to smile an indolent smile and sip a lime-colored cooler! To mess around, hang out, waste time, take it easy.

Then, it begins.

Alarm's off, but you wake up anyway. Too early. Too antsy. With nothing to do.

In the words of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "summer has set in with its usual severity."

Television drones. Books turn into pages of unintelligible black marks.

Preschoolers whine, college students start drinking earlier than usual.

Finally, time to talk on the phone. But nothing much to talk about.

Lethargy eclipses bliss.

As aphorist Mason Cooley notes, "Even boredom has its crises."

"When university finishes, leaving me stranded without purpose or structure, despair arrives," says Shirin Borthwick, a student in Sydney, Australia. "The less stuff I do, the less I want to do, so instead of enjoying the sunshine I end up lurking in the house, haunting the halls like a creature locked in an ivory tower, all the while engaging in progressively deeper introspection."

You find yourself talking to the cat. Becoming an expert at making that creaking sound in the back of your throat. Noticing the dead fly stuck in the stucco ceiling.

"I am the nation's expert on boredom," says Alan Caruba, who runs the online Boring Institute (www.boringinstitute.com) from his home in New Jersey. It started 20 years ago as a joke but quickly turned serious.

"Boredom is an early stage of depression, if it lingers on more than a day or two," Caruba explains. And, summer being the midyear hump, boredom season, the Boring Institute has named July "the official anti-boredom month."

Caruba, by the way, is "never bored." And for only $4.95, you can beat boredom too -- by downloading the Beating Boredom guide from his Web site.

But instead of buying your freedom, you end up running your name through Google.

Checking your e-mail 20 times.

Swinging your feet onto the desk.

Studying your toes.

Remembering all the fun you had last summer, and the summers before ....

"A lot of what I did during the summers was try to reenact my younger childhood," says Aneesa Davenport, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara. "Which in a way made me more bored, because it was never as fun or captivating as I remembered it to be.

"Even as a child my friends and I were very nostalgic," she says. "I don't remember playing hopscotch for fun -- I only remember being about 10 and playing it because it used to be fun, and trying to go back to that time.

"When we had a lemonade stand it was because we knew that's what kids did, and we were nostalgic for the experiences we saw on reruns of 'Leave It to Beaver' and the 'Donna Reed Show.' "

Henry Miller said, "There is a time for play and a time for work, a time for creation and a time for lying fallow. And there is a time, glorious too in its own way, when one scarcely exists, when one is a complete void. I mean -- when boredom seems the very stuff of life."

A summer Monday in South Los Angeles. It's just too hot. Sweat stains spread under arms. Seat belt buckles scald. Air conditioners break.

Even worse, "the sorority houses aren't open, so there's a huge shortage of women," says Brandon Pleus, a USC cinema major.

The fraternities remain inhabited. USC's frat row, 28th Street, is melting, a lonely island. No fewer than three blowup wading pools wilt in dirty frontyards, water long evaporated, reminders of what summer might have been. Windows are broken, and beer bottles, overturned chairs and rusty barbecues lollygag on browning grass.

At 2 in the afternoon, Pleus ventures outdoors. He rubs his eyes, yawns, checks the mail. He's dressed in blue boxer shorts and a white T-shirt. His face is burnt to a tomato hue.

He looks bored. He is bored.

"But boredom isn't as bad as one might think," he says. "It's not as bad as stress or anxiety."

Instead of inventing distractions, Pleus embraces boredom. Some days he lugs a lawn chair onto the frat house roof.

"I sit and look at the street," he says. "I think about home, about sports, movies that I've seen ... what it's gonna be like to have a real job."

He watches bike riders go by, and "I wonder if they're going to the library."

At boredom's peak, "you have no conscious thought at all," Pleus says. "You are just looking -- letting your eyes be yourself."

"I would classify boredom as a mood, like joy or sorrow," says Dale Wright, professor of religious studies at Occidental College.

"From a Buddhist point of view," Wright says, "meditation is the extremity of boredom, purposefully imposed, to train the mind to see that all things are alive, that beauty and opportunities are everywhere.

"We tend to see the boring quality in ... summer, rather than recognize that boredom is in our minds."

In our minds.

In our minds.

Lying on the couch, you find yourself reading the same line over, and over, a mantra, without noticing that you're reading it over, and over.

Soon the pencils will go on sale, giant Back to School vats at Target and Costco.

There will be carpool arrangements to make. Daily planners to purchase.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, "He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the strongest refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain."

Who knows.

But a few months from now, you may close your eyes for a second, and remember ...

The boring season.

What a wonderful summer.

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