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About Boredom

Believe it or not, from time to time, I cite Kurt Cobain’s incisive assessment of his generation: “Here we are. Now, entertain us.” It’s an expectation that I see growing ever more pervasive, and many university students think it’s a professor’s job to entertain them. It isn’t. And anyway, the issue isn’t strictly attached to generation. Everybody can be bored. But fewer and fewer children are learning how to respond to boredom. The problem isn’t that we should never be bored. The problem is that many don’t know what to do when bored.

In the last few months, I’ve seen in the news a story about a trio of young men who were bored so they killed a passing jogger. I’ve seen in the news a story about a bored young man building pipe bombs. My mother must have dealt early with any suggestion that there was nothing to do. There was plenty to do, and we had to go outside and do it. Or go upstairs and read. How can a person be fully bored when there are books?

There are parents who hand out chores when the kids say they’re bored. Not a bad idea. It’s a way of showing that there is something to do. Show the way, but don’t do it for them. If we are bored, it isn’t because there’s nothing to do. It’s because we enjoy inertia. It has something to do with physics. Once we start doing something–even daydreaming–we can keep doing something. We can read a treasured book or a brand new one. We can write one. We can do word puzzles. If I’m stuck in a fit of inertia, I often will snap out of it or pass the interminable five minutes doing Free Rice. It makes me ashamed of myself that I’m bored at the same time that it makes me feel good to be using my boredom to make a difference.

I should spend more time thinking about getting off my ass and doing the dishes or dusting. My mother always called to us as we headed up the stairs, “Don’t go empty handed.” There was always something sitting on the bottom stairs, folded laundry maybe, that needed to go up. I think more of us could use lessons in how to deal with boredom on our own. Like most other things in life, nobody’s going to do it for us.

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Stave off Creeping Dementia

I have embraced the term “creeping dementia,” which I discovered in an Irish novel a few years ago. I embrace many things I discover in books. “Creeping dementia” functions for me as many things do in my family. We like to be flippant about dire things, the blacker the humour the better. My sister and I once sat in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. entertaining ourselves with comments on the general clientele one finds in a hospital emergency room at 3:00 a.m. Creeping dementia, as a term, seems to me to be a gentle reminder that things go missing in the brain with greater regularity as said brain ages. But even as I acknowledge that it happens, I resist that it happens. I also have embraced activities to stave off creeping dementia.

My mother was devoted to crossword puzzles and very late in her life still beat me at Scrabble. I have taken to crosswords as part of my morning, just to shake my brain awake. I never thought I’d enjoy them, partly because, as a perfectionist, I didn’t like the erasing and writing over and smudges on the page, the unfinished evidence. But online puzzles, free online puzzles, spare me those aggravations. Once I click away, there is no proof of my groping for a correct answer, and in some cases, puzzles with scores and timers, I can enjoy those measures of success. It isn’t easy being a determined perfectionist.

There’s also freerice.com. I can exercise my vocabulary, encounter words I have never seen before, identify geographical locations, match flags with nations, and so on, staving off creeping dementia for free. And, while I do it, a rice bowl is filling with ten grains of free rice for every correct answer. This rice costs me nothing because the ads on the site pay for the rice.  After years of being a casual user, I created an account (free) and discovered more variety in the questions. I solve, companies advertise, people eat–it’s a beautiful thing.

Every day, I use words devotedly. I read, I write, I organize, I communicate, I puzzle. I love words. Love what they can do. Words are powerful things. They are among my greatest friends. They understand me. I don’t want to lose them.

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Intersections of Print and Visual Art

Somebody somewhere remarked on how much a person learns about a subject in the process of teaching it. That may seem odd, since we hope that those who teach know the subject already. Well, we do–at least, we know more about it than our students do. But in every course I have taught, I have learned something new, often from a student, and it’s a thrill. Still, creating and teaching a new course is like a graduate mini-degree. It starts with an idea based on exposure to a representative body of materials. Once the idea is clear enough to be proposed, there’s a thesis. Then, the case has to be made in the form of the course outline, the assignments, the theoretical and creative primary resources.

That’s where I am right now. Presented with the necessity of creating a new course for an existing program, and needing to blurt out the basis for the course in under an hour, with seeming nonchalance, I explained that we’d engage with interdisciplinarity in Irish art forms, examining how a culture’s print and visual arts engage in storytelling about the culture, how they are part of a larger narrative about history and identity. It’s there. I see it everywhere. But I can’t just assert it. So there has to be a little foundation in interdisciplinary theory, a little bit of Claude Levi-Strauss, some Roland Barthes, and a bit of Walter Benjamin. There also must be some basic art theory, maybe a little Burke on beauty, Wilde on lying, Carlyle on symbols, and Hirsch on interpretation. After that, after presenting ways to think about things, bring on the art.

If the evidence isn’t there, it’s nowhere. House-end murals, high crosses, statuary, novels, speeches, poetry, paintings–in art, we find out what concerns a people, and we can read visual art as surely as we can read print. A bust of Constance Markievicz in St. Stephen’s Green can be read alongside her account of battle during the Easter Rising and her prison letters, and then she shows up in documentary footage and Roddy Doyle’s novel A Star Called Henry. We see it, and then we analyze it–assign meaning. Yesterday, I read in The Irish Times how the painter Jack B. Yeats was “an important influence on Samuel Beckett: the abstract spaces and isolated figures of Yeats’s late paintings are also those of Beckett’s late plays.” An intersection if I ever saw one.

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A Reader Reads

I think I was born knowing how to read. I don’t remember learning. Our house was full of books–mysteries, encyclopedias, anthologies, novels. We were farm kids, and there was plenty of reading time. Where were we going to go? In books, we could go anywhere. I got Maud Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley from a friend for my tenth birthday, and I still have it. I read Gone with the Wind when I was young enough to play it in my imagination and old enough to fall in love with Ashley Wilkes. I have about three hundred hardcover detective novels that belonged to my mother. Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. Having to part with books, when the shelves get too crowded, is hard on my heart. The occasional cull is necessary because I can’t stop acquiring books.

What I’ve learned, over the departure of thousands of books to libraries and charity sales, is what matters most to me. Aside from the delicious compendium Critical Theory Since Plato, all of the academic discussions of literature and film are gone. Those critical ideas in Plato are beautifully fresh, creative things. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, and the Bronte sisters are safe and secure, everything they wrote. I have a complete Chaucer and a complete Shakespeare. I have poems by Pasternak, Ginsberg, Neruda, Sexton, Akhmatova, Nowlan, Cohen, Szymborska. Sometimes, I think about my top ten list, and I hesitate to fill all the spots. The thought makes me nervous because I don’t want to confine myself. Books aren’t like that. I can say that A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Star Called HenryChatterton,  A Long, Long Way and Rainbow Valley would be on the list. That’s half way. I’ve read and re-read them. They can take it. That’s the secret. Keep books that can stand up to the scrutiny, that offer new things with each reading, that surprise all over with a beautiful phrase.

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