Let’s Be Bored!

June 22, 2017 § 22 Comments

The first screens that bothered me were in minivans. Back around 1998 when an in-car VCR first was a thing I asked my mother, “But when will the kids be bored?” I remembered long family car rides from Florida to Canada and back every summer, staring out the window, making up games in my head about the dividing line, learning to read the map, playing Alphabet or Punchbuggy, counting cows. I remembered the year I decided–decided!–I would no longer get carsick from reading.

I’m sure big chunks of those rides were boring. And don’t get me started on my Dad smoking with the window cracked. But they were also where I developed some of the life of the mind. The ability to think and dream and plan and guess for hours at a time, unbounded by schedules or plans or classes or teams or “having something to do.”

As an adult, it’s my phone that gets me. Before I carried a computer in my pocket, I was a lot more in tune with the world around me. No matter how virtuous my New York Times digital subscription feels, it’s still not the same as leafing through the physical paper, reading articles I didn’t pick but caught my eye. I don’t think clickbait counts.

On my way home to Dubai yesterday, I had a six-hour layover at Amsterdam Schipol–enough time to go into town and walk around. I’d racked up huge data charges on the last layover here, so I kept my phone in airplane mode and I kept it in my purse. It occured to me I hadn’t done that for a while, so I started a list in my notebook of all the things we used to do before we all had smartphones:

Used payphones.

Bummed change for payphones.

Begged and pleaded with the convenience store clerk to please give us change.

Resentfully bought a single jawbreaker or Fireball to get change.

Got lost.

Were on time to appointments, instead of texting running bhind b thr in 10.

Tried restaurants we didn’t know anything about because they looked cute outside.

Looked out the window.

Saw words we didn’t know and wrote them down to look up later.

Couldn’t take a photo unless we’d remembered our camera; couldn’t see what the photo looked like until it came back from the photo lab in the corner of the grocery store.

Read ads and billboards and posters.

Figured out train and bus timetables.

Asked strangers for directions.

Looked around a new neighborhood to find out what kind of stores were around.

Whistled or waved for taxis.

In Amsterdam I did in fact get lost, figuring if worse came to worse I’d get a taxi back to the station, or even ask someone for directions. The Dutch have terrific English, but I’m sure I could have squeezed out some charades for “train” if it were, say, rural China. I knew from the pink-lined windows I was in roughly the Red Light District, and went on a quest for something I can get in Amsterdam but not in Dubai (not that thing, the other thing.) Finding what I wanted by chance felt triumphant. I tried to figure out “Moeder’s Keuze”–I guessed “mother’s kiss” but later found out it’s “mother’s choice” and if anyone Dutch knows why that’s heading a sandwich menu, let me know. On the train back to the airport, the man across from me mouthed into his cellphone, “I’ve sort of glossed over where I’m staying, I think she thinks I’m going to be in Amsterdam tonight,” and I wrote that down for future dialogue.

Don’t get me wrong–I still value the ability to get accurate travel info, settle arguments, and take a picture every time I want. But my phone sometimes cuts me off from adventure and hazard and spontaneity. It’s certainly not doing anything for my mood when I check Twitter upon waking. I already turn the phone face down when I’m writing, and it’s time to stop whipping it out every time I have a free five minutes. I don’t need to zap gems or solve puzzles or learn a French verb or even read something edifying to get ideas/think through a writing block.

I need to be bored.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 22 Responses to Let’s Be Bored!

  • Cheers for boredom. And thank you for another engaging post!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    It has been almost 20 years ago that I checked into my Philadelphia hotel a day early for a nonprofit board meeting. (This sounds more impressive than it was—I was a teacher on a board with people who had actual money.) I found a bus schedule and rode into the city an hour before anyone was even at work and spent an entire day. When I stepped off the bus in a deserted business district at 7am it did cross my mind that might not be wise, but I had never been on the east coast before and I wanted to see Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell. I retain many memories of these and other sites, but one of the most vivid recollections is walking up to a very tall man in a three-piece suit. No one makes eye contact in that city and I was about to do what the guidebook warned me I should never do. “Sir, sir?” I said. He eventually looked at me, and I asked for directions to a store. I wanted to buy a gray Coach bag. He finally glanced at me and then looked into my eyes. He paused, smiled slightly, and then directed me to my chosen destination. Late in the day, I found the bus back across the river, but missed my destination by half a mile. I had to climb a chain link fence and cross a freeway to get back to my meetings. It was all an adventure and I suppose I was lucky, but this day remains a treasure.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      I suppose the important bit I left out is that almost none of it would have happened (where I had lunch and who I talked to) if I’d actually known what I was doing, and spent much of the day staring at the device in my hand.

  • This is a really good post. I feel the same at times because being a millennial, you remember seeing the “other” world. I miss that world and it’s accidental discoveries and falling in love with places without “yelping” them first. And it also makes me wistful to think our children will never have the taste of that world

  • Lovely! I used to send my photo film to Mystic Lab to get developed and I it usually took one to two weeks to find the fat package in the mailbox and I recall the excitement of opening the envelope to see the photos – and to feel the memories they evoked – as I would flip through the stack, making piles for keepers and discards. Such special moment memories!!

  • I had never thought that it was boredom that had initiated all my adventures but upon reflection and due to your well written soliloquy I realise that ‘yes’ my adventures were mostly due to boredom and you are quite right, the youth of today, (many adults too) do not know what boredom is, which is sad because as you say that is one of the pivotal times for imagination. Imagination, the lost art and boredom the last brush. Thanks for your clip.

  • Paul Lamb says:

    In Mr. Penumbra’s All Night Bookstore (I think that’s the right name) there is a hugely tech-savvy character who buys a paper copy of the New York Times but doesn’t know how to “operate” it.

  • What a lovely post! To be bored is an insurmountable feat in this age of media. I was reminded of long summer noons back home when I used to sun myself in the balcony after oiling my hair and sit staring at the people passing by, making up stories in my head, or wander up and down the stairs wondering what to do next, hatching plans for pleading with my mother for two hours of badminton,…oh for the sake of getting bored.

  • So appreciative of your humor and…uh…brevity! I did not have a cell phone longer than I have had one and can recall lots of good stuff. What a great prompt idea and thanks for sharing your snapshot memories.

  • Emily says:

    Amsterdam is a nice place to get lost for a few hours 🙂

  • Emily says:

    Amsterdam is a charming old burg to get lost in for a few 🙂

  • iris386 says:

    Well said Allison!
    I am Dutch but have never seen Moeder’s Keuze on a sandwich board (or any other board!). I’d guess that was the healthy choice. But then again, downtown Amsterdam is not very representative for The Netherlands as a whole 😉
    And yes, let’s all get bored from time to time. It’s crucial to develop your creative problem solving skills. Apparently something younger generations struggle with.

  • […] Point after class and revel in the sound of the waves. See this Brevity blog post on “boredom.” Yeah, I love being “bored” […]

  • Boredom is a lost art, don’t you think? Let’s not let it die! Great post.

  • Nina Badzin says:

    All so true. I recently thought, too, about how my kids will never know the sound of film loading in a camera. It’s a small detail that stands for so much that has changed.

  • batya7 says:

    I wonder what my plugged-in children will wax nostalgic about. Because they grew up when the internet was present, but not portable, they had a much different experience than I growing up. I remember digging in the backyard dirt with a tablespoon, building a shopping mall. They played Pokémon games on Game Boy. I went on long hikes down the trails in our urban park. They…didn’t. I traveled the city on my bicycle or by bus. “Mom, can you drive me to…” someplace. It’s a different world.

    • I have no children of my own but it is an intriguing thought and I too am looking forward to finding out the answer. It will most likely be fond memories of their first Game Boy or the first time they played a particular game, but really who can say.

  • […] Allison Williams wrote on the Brevity Mag blog about the importance of being bored. Of turning off your smartphone and finding your way without the GPS or going on a road trip in a car without video screens. Without these things, she says, we have […]

  • I just love this. I remember long car rides with my parents, too. You’re right. The mind needs time to wander and it can’t if it’s always fixed on one’s phone. Thank you for this important reminder.

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Just to clarify, today’s re-blog is not a “message” to any of my friends who might have gotten a new phone—honestly, it was just the next one in my bookmarks 🙂

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