Thursday, January 8, 2009

On Location: Great Reading Room

"In this moment of anti-boredom triumphalism, there's something creepy about our constant flight from ourselves. Our fear of boredom suggests a kind of self-loathing. What are we so afraid of? Anyone who can't bear a few minutes of his own company should probably ask himself why before buying a ticket to [a movie]."

- Michael Crowley in his essay "Prison Break," published by The New Republic.

Hi, my name is John, and I am an addict.

Now, this simple admission has nothing to do with a fear that I'll break into cold sweats if I remove my lips from a tumbler of Evil Willy or peel my fingers from the neck of a Geary's for any length of time. Nor does it mean that I'm unable to find a shirt in my closet that doesn't stink of tobacco, or that I am an uncontrollable urge away from, say, setting a Westbrook apartment for the elderly on fire. And it certainly does not mean I indulge in illegal substances that would cause me to pop a positive result if a random person handed me a random cup and demanded that I pee.

No, my addiction is of the more socially-acceptable sort: I cannot get enough media, particularly that which is transmitted through the glow of a computer monitor or the din of a radio or iPod.

In the morning, I shuffle my iPod while I shower and listen to canned episodes of "This American Life" while I shave. And when I walk into my bedroom or home office--even for an expected stay of no more than a couple minutes--I just have to flick on the radio. And the computer, oh that lovely glowing beacon of evaporated minutes.

When I'm not checking my e-mail for the twenty-sixth time before breakfast, I'm browsing the Internet for material to write about or for cheap, quick entertainment. And when I'm not indulging in the occupational hazards of a blogger, I'm partaking in my hippie hipster (or is it Bobo?) lifestyle choice of watching television and movies without, you know, an actual t.v.

Depending on who you ask, my addictions are not such a bad thing. As Michael Crowley points out in his ode to boredom (sorry, no link), Mark Cuban the entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, triumphantly announced the end of that nagging bane to human existence, boredom: "Portable media devices, whether Ipods (sic), portable gaming devices, phones with all their features, or whatever have solved what has been a generations old nuisance for all of us, boredom." And Steven Johnson, the author of the book Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, writes in his book that "mass media is supplying an increasingly rigorous mental workout." All of which may be true.

But I still face a conundrum: On the one hand, I enjoy maintaining this Web site immensely and do not plan to quit the computer (or iPod or radio, for that matter). On the other, I recently experienced what might be called a Crowley Moment ("Recently, I found myself at the website of the Argentine Air Force and suddenly wondered, like an awakening drunk, how did I get here?") and have gradually come to the conclusion that I'm spending way too much time perched in front of the computer. Moreover, after still instinctively turning on the radio even when the only big, never-ending, monotonous (did I mention mind-numbingly never-ending?) question was "Teixeira Will he sign with the Red Sox, or won't he?," I knew I had a problem. Here's the catch, though: Unlike an alcoholic eager for recovery, I don't want to completely abstain from my addictions; I just want to temper them.

So, last Friday morning I issued myself the the following task: From the time I hopped on the No. 4 in front of Mathieu's Market, I would go three conscious hours without listening to music or touching a computer. And as the morning progressed, I even upped the ante by prohibiting myself from even reading and talking, unless the latter was absolutely necessary . Put simply, I would become a quasi-monk for three hours, and the UNUM Great Reading Room at the Albert Glickman Family Library in Portland would become my monastery.

Located on the top floor of the seven-story University of Southern Maine (USM) library, the Great Reading Room in early January is the best place to get bored in the Greater Westbrook area. The lack of university students--if they aren't home sleeping away what remains of their winter break, they're certainly not hanging out at the school's library--almost always guarantees quiet. And the ambience of the room--the Thos. Moser furniture and the panoramic bird's-eye view of the Back Bay neighborhood--ensures you'll enjoy that quiet in comfort and style. Or, at least theoretically enjoy that quiet in comfort and style.

My relatively quiet--save for a neighbor blowing Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" out of his headphones--ride on the No. 4 from Westbrook to Portland was painless. But, after about thirty minutes of no entertainment except that which was generated by my head and the ballet of life taking place on the streets below, I began getting antsy.

I paced around the room, glancing at the covers of USM's professors' academic treatises. But looking at the covers of books with titles such as Divorce Lawyers at Work and Productivity Growth in Developing Countries can divert your attention from yourself for only so long. This pattern--brainstorming in a chair for twenty minutes, pacing the perimeter of the room--held for the next couple hours or so until 11:15a, when the parking lot of the Arby's across the street began to fill.

At this point, I was an hour from my self-imposed 12:15p finish line and began to develop thoughts that had the randomness of someone who'd either been bored for too long, or bored just long enough: Wouldn't it be interesting to do a sociological study of an Arby's parking lot, answering such big questions as Who's most likely to drive through a drive-thru? What is the percentage of men who hold the door open for women? I even found myself cruelly thinking that it would be awesome if the streets below were icy enough to generate crashes like these in the other Portland. However, as random and cruel as these thoughts were, it was refreshing to consider the mundane, as well as to do nothing but think and be, well, bored.

Indeed, even though I ran out of the room just as my clock struck 12:15p, I did rush out of the room with a feeling a catharsis. You know, sort of like the feeling you get just after you've watched an emotionally-powerful movie.

- John C.L. Morgan


My Mayberry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
My Mayberry said...

I confess to many of the very same technological compulsions that you've so aptly brought to light. A couple of years ago, I hit the wall in terms of the price that our penchant for technology is having on our connectedness and overall sense of community. Since that time, I have repeatedly experienced that when we take the measured time to form face-to-face (caring) community, and then extend it electronically, the true potential of the medium begins to emerge.

Without a vibrant underlying network of face-to-face relationships consisting of neighbors, family and friends, technology over time draws us into a growing but increasingly shallow array of online acquaintences, which for the most part are not able to able to provide tangible care we need it most.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Social Isolation Growing in U.S.

I applaud you for not only pausing to contemplate the ultimate price of our electronic connectedness but also to so elloquently share it with those of us who frequent your blog.