Essays About


Boredom for a subject does not reflect a defect in the subject, but in our understanding of it. In the ears of the ignorant, a foreign language is a monotonous barrage of meaningless intonations, but knowledge of its grammar transforms sound into speech, capable of conveying Shakespeare's or Plato's meaning. The surface of Mars seems to me a tiresome landscape of red dirt, but to an astrophysicist who speaks the obscure language of rocks, it is a crossword puzzle written by the Big Bang. We protest to the passionate not to bore us with details, not realizing that lack of details is precisely what bores us, for details reveal the richness and inner coherence that are invisible from a distance, as a microscope reveals teeming life in a drop of muddy pond water.

Paging through an accounting textbook, walking past a wig shop, or listening to a lecture on early American basket-making, I never say "that is uninteresting" but rather "I am uninterested", for it is always more reasonable to assume that I fail to see what is there than that devotees see what is not there. I love to hear of people devoting their lives to pursuits that sound dull to me, for I know that their enthusiasm is right and my boredom is wrong, and I am happy for the rebuke. I convert my specific boredoms into general fascination with passion's possibilities, reflecting that, under altered alignments of choice and chance, I might have given my days to different causes. There is more worth loving than we have strength to love.

A foolish trope of modernity is that experience leads to disenchantment and ennui. Boredom with life does not result from exhausting life's riches, but from skimming them. Nothing is boring, except people who are bored.

We live in slavery to our ambitions. We complain of doing what no one makes us do. In the workplace, companies strain to meet the stratospheric goals naively conceived in the zeal of a board meeting. Executives restructure divisions, employees work weekends, managers cut costs and strain nerves to meet deadlines, overlooking the simpler solution of swapping their original fantasy for realism. For the pride of being president, the successful politician endures public ridicule, early gray hair, and a daily bread of crisis. At home, we plan parties meant to be fun then wither and growl under the stress of baking dessert and cleaning the house. Many nights I hate to sit down and write, but long ago some former self decided to do it, and, like a child raised under strict religion, backsliding afflicts me with guilt.

We groan under the law and forget that our own hands carved the tablets. Why not smash them instead of obey them?

I am a better reader now than when I was in graduate school, because I read with less enthusiasm. I can stay with a book from cover to cover, whereas in graduate school I could scarcely finish anything, because I wanted to read everything. Ten pages in, I was craving the next book. My patience was insufficient for novels, so I mostly read poems and essays. To visit libraries paralyzed me with my options. I sampled tables of contents endlessly, but an excess of hunger prevented me from eating.

I knew a friend in college who behaved similarly toward people at gatherings. Spotting you from across the room, he would curtail his conversation and weave through crowds to greet you, but as he shook your hand, his eyes were already scanning for the next friend he craved talking to. His hand and eyes, his having and wanting, were always out of sync. He liked so many people that he scarcely knew anyone beyond hello.

Too much desire is self-defeating, wildly overrunning the thing it wants. Passions need a pinch of apathy to slow them down to the pace of enjoyment.

Success, by way of ambition, leads to failure. The more we achieve, the more we think we can achieve; our hopes rise exponentially in relation to our skill. Talented drama students, heartened by the cheers of local audiences, journey to Hollywood after high school, where everyone was a talented drama student, and there are only jobs as extras. The best baseball players in the minor league go to the major league, where they are the worst players. As air bubbles rise through water and dissolve in the atmosphere, the above average rise until they are average. As we ascend the ranks, our status falls.

I temper my temper with laughter. Hurriedly washing dishes and breaking a glass, I swing a fist at the air for the extra work of cleaning it up, while a volley of profanity bursts like bad poetry from my lips. Turning, I glimpse my face in the hallway mirror, and the red of my fury cedes place to the red of my shame. Feeling my rational judgment stare down my charade, squirming under my own rebuke, I lighten the moment with a laugh. Thus my tantrums do not so much release my anger as embarrass me into being more patient. Could the cantankerous world likewise hold a mirror up to war, humanity would be shamed into peace.

The idea of the sea whets our imagination. The ocean's complexity mirrors the mind's own depths. Just as consciousness conceals the unconscious, the sea's sunlit, glittering surface masks an underworld of mysteries and monsters. How flat and fathomable solid land seems, compared to the murky world beneath the waves. Thus land-dwellers pile onto boats in search of mystical, primordial encounters with earth's liquid wilderness. Instead, many spend the trip puking their lunch over the rail, their stomach in mutiny against their mind's romanticism.

Our souls get sick for, our bodies sick from, the sea.

To know someone truly, look at what he does when no one is paying him. My wife makes jewelry, my father gardens, I write, my grandfather cleared brush from the woods by his house. Seeking the common core of varied hobbies, I notice in all a devotion of effort toward a self-imposed goal. To accomplish something is every hobby's purpose, but what is the purpose of the accomplishment? We are less interested in the accomplishment than the accomplishing. Hobbies express an entrenched urge to create, to add patches of order to the universe. In our hobbies as in our careers, we stack the world's raw scraps into meaningful shapes—arranging dirt into flower beds, stones into necklaces, words into paragraphs. We curse a Saturday that sees no progress on our projects, not because anyone needs what we produce, but because we need to produce. At work we long for leisure; in leisure we keep working.