January 10, 2009
I have had much more difficult commutes. The 50-mile trip between Willimantic and Mystic was pretty exhausting (and nerve-wracking during snowstorms). The journey between New Brunswick and Iselin was only about 10 miles, but it took an hour each way. (That’s New Jersey for you.) I’ve had daily travels that are far more trying than the 8/10 of a mile between my house and Real Art Ways.
That’s right. It’s less than a mile. And I drive it far more frequently than I walk it.
Don’t look at me like that – you would too, if you were faced with walking through that neighborhood alone after 8 p.m.
It’s not the commute itself, I think, that’s getting to me. It’s something about me at this point and how I manage to align myself with and against the unending ennui of modern life.
I should provide a bit of context, perhaps, on my relationship to boredom. My mother told me throughout my childhood, much in the manner of John Berryman’s mother, that to say you’re bored suggests that you aren’t intelligent enough to make your situation stimulating. So, for me, this is a topic filled with landmines and the discussion of it is in itself stimulating. Take that, boredom!
There are several probable reasons that chronic, compensated boredom is generally not considered pathological. Perhaps the main reason is that in contemporary industrial society most people are bored, and a shared pathology – the “pathology of normalcy” – is not experienced as pathology. Furthermore, “normal” boredom is usually not conscious. Most people succeed in compensating for it by participating in a great number of “activities” that prevent them from consciously feeling bored. Eight hours of the day they are busy making a living; when the boredom would threaten to become conscious, after business hours, they avoid this danger by the numerous means that prevent manifest boredom: drinking, watching television, taking a ride, going to parties, engaging in sexual activities, and, the more recent fashion, taking drugs. Eventually their natural need for sleep takes over, and the day is ended successfully if boredom has not been experienced consciously at any point. (273-274).
This makes a lot of sense to me, especially as I consider the way I approach my days. For instance, during my most recent “vacation” (by which I mean the period during which my office was closed – not some kind of trip I might have taken), I filled each hour with an activity. For example, here’s December 30, 2008:
- 8 – 9 a.m.: Wake up, morning routine, coffee, time to read the paper
- 9 – 11 a.m.: Read Michelle’s dissertation prospectus, collect thoughts
- 11 a.m. – noon: Read Heart of Darkness
- noon – 1 p.m.: Read Superdove
- 1 – 2 p.m.: Draft response to Michelle
- 2 – 5 p.m.: Gym (with travel and showering time included)
- 5 – 6 p.m.: Work on TNB post (Hi!)
- 6 – 8 p.m.: Work on New Wave Eve mix
- 8 – 9 p.m.: Dinner
- 9 – 11 p.m.: Watch La Haine
- 11 p.m. – midnight: Catch up on emails
I made myself an hourly schedule for my time off.
Fromm proposes why this method might be unsuccessful at staving off the effects of boredom:
in the superficial relief from boredom, the whole person, and particularly his deeper feeling, his imagination, his reason, in short all his essential facilities and psychic potentialities remain untouched; they are not brought to life; the boredom-compensating means are like a bulky food without any nutritional value. The person continues to feel “empty” and unmoved on a deeper level. He “anesthetizes” this uncomfortable feeling by momentary excitation, “thrill,” “fun,” liquor, or sex – but unconsciously he remains bored. (275)
So, while it might seem that filling my day with art history, literature, writing, and film would lead to “deeper feeling” that engages my “essential facilities and psychic potentialities,” the very way I go about filling the day gives rise to a feeling of emptiness. I imagine the reason I so often can’t sleep at night has something to do with a need to provide myself with still time – quiet, unconstrained time – during which I can reflect.
When one is bored, time stretches out; it becomes languid and difficult to grasp onto. Meaning seems to me to work like knots in a rope. Lars Svendsen, who’s written a philosophic overview on boredom, describes it thus: “Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz-meaning” (26). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that to ballast myself up against this onslaught of repetitive and unceasing routine, I find ways of exercising my fancy, ways of tying knots. I feel better during those fleeting moments each day in my car, on my 0.8-mile commute, when I see the flock of pigeons, than how I feel when I’m being productive.
DAILY THOUGHTS ON SERPENTINING SUPERDOVES
Every morning, somewhere above the buildings near the southeast corner of Farmington and Sisson, a flock of pigeons serpentines again and again. I watch them as I’m stopped at Hartford’s second most annoying traffic light.
My mother isn’t crazy about birds. That’s not entirely true. My mother isn’t crazy about large flocks of birds. I think this probably has something to do with the age she was – thirteen and impressionable – whenThe Birds came out. She particularly dislikes pigeons and generally puts them in the category of dirty pests. I have what I consider to be a healthy streak of contrariness, so I like pigeons. I would probably never do this:
but I’ve always liked those little iridescent bits at their necks and the fluttering sound their wings make and their cooing.
And I have particular affection for groups of birds – everything from the family of mallards that live in our stream each spring, to the Vs of geese that I’d crane my neck to see as a girl, to the murder of crows that lives in Hartford in the winters. On a recent trip to Prince Edward Island, I walked right into the ocean to get closer to some plummeting Gannets.
Pigeons weren’t always considered pests – in fact, they’re non-native to the US, so their entire existence on this continent is, it turns out, evidence of their former status. Courtney Humphries’ lovely and excellently-titled book Superdove outlines the social role of Columbia livia in American history. Keeping pigeons was something of a class marker, so naturally the aristocrats and statesmen who eventually made their way to America wanted to bring their pigeons along. These landlords’ birds propagated and propagated, and they served to mark their owner’s class as much as they also filled his gut.
Restaurants – mostly high-end ones – still serve pigeon meat. Apparently, it’s quite good.
But pigeon appreciation – can I make up a word for this? palomaphilia – wasn’t strictly observed by the leisurely classes. Darwin only felt prepared to publish The Origin of Species after working extensively with pigeons. He actually grew quite fond of his little doves. As he states in a letter to a friend: “I am getting on with my Pigeon Fancy and now have pairs of nine very distinct varieties, and I love them to that extent that I cannot bear to kill and skeletonise them.”
The armed forces of many countries have put pigeons to work saving battalions and winning battles. In more prosperous days, when wire services were less reliable, financiers and market traders depended upon news that traveled by pigeon; they were called Pigeon Men.
They were once so honored! It seems to me to be so arbitrary, the favor in and out of which groups fall with humans.
As I sit at that damned stoplight, I make myself feel better by making up stories about my serpentining superdoves. Here are some theories:
- sometimes I imagine they’re being trained to deliver crack
- sometimes that they’re a colony of obsessive-compulsive birds who must perform serpentines en masse, before dispersing for the day to find food
- sometimes that they live under their own small fascist state and that the flying pattern is part of daily required morning exercises
- sometimes that they are carefully tracing the paths of some maniacally swooping mice on the ground below
- or perhaps that the people who live in the nearby retirement community are out for wheelchair grace training (the superdoves are super-empaths)
- Another flight of fancy is that they are actually passenger pigeons and that I am some kind of brilliant ornithologist savant who has discovered the only surviving flock!
Another possibility: Maybe this fascination, this weaving of unlikely narrative, has more to do with an affinity I feel for pigeons. If we define animals in relation to ourselves, our identities, our own lives, then the essence of the pigeon, the entire reason we fostered them through the centuries, is their love of home and their seemingly boundless will to return home. They are fellow commuters.