The Productivity of Boredom

A few years ago, I was a common criminal. At the time I was commuting 3-4 hours per day using public transportation. With all the time in the world to kill, it became an optimum opportunity to binge watch television shows and blow through movies. I devoured an obscene amount of media in those days.

Problem was, I did not ‘technically’ own all of the content I was watching ‘legally’. I used to justify my thievery because I had rules. I would only pirate movies and TV shows that I already had the capability of watching in other methods. Netflix, DVDs, various other streaming services that I had paid into but at the time did not allow offline viewing on a train.

So, the first year or two of my commute, I quietly downloaded media. I watched it once, then promptly deleted it as if my self restraint made it okay.

I blamed my illegal activities on the corporations. I told myself that if they made their services easier to use I would be willing to pay. Digital downloads back in those days were even more cluttered and confusing than they are now and I was tired of paying for content that I could only use on my phone but not on my TV or laptop and other consumer unfriendly silliness. At the end of the day, no matter what I told myself, that was just a petty justification as to why I deserved free shit.

Then one day, I was hit with a cease and desist letter – I had been outed as a filthy common criminal. It was embarrassing because I, of all people, knew better. I have many friends that are artists, struggling to make it work in a modern era that expects everything for free. Granted, I was stealing mass produced garbage that gave maybe .0000001 percent to the original artist, but the essence was still the same.

I not only ceased, hard stop, I also shame spiraled for weeks. I really disliked myself and was extremely hard on myself for my own shitty decisions.

But life went on and I forged ahead with my daily commute, now hampered with a plethora of worthless time. Hours a day spent where data service was spotty at best, where the monotony of the same familiar strangers and the passing scenery of the same featureless buildings numbed the mind. While watching the tufts of hair from the back of another nameless rider’s head peak over the same generic seat back, I discovered something truly beautiful…

Boredom

Boredom was always something to run away from growing up. It was sitting on the couch upside-down moaning after the cartoons had ended. It was grasping for any form of self-entertainment, often times destructive. Boredom was the mortal enemy of fun, it made the ticks and tocks labor by in an increasingly tantalizing pace. To a child, boredom felt like a prolonged and painful death.

As an adult in the 21st century, technology has done a good job of crushing boredom. It has morphed it and mutilated it. What we call boredom today is something that would be completely unrecognizable to a nine-year-old in the eighties. Boredom in 2018 isn’t having nothing to do, boredom is having everything at your fingertips and being uninspired. Boredom in 2018 is mindlessly refreshing Facebook and scrolling through BuzzFeed’s top ten most scandalous things that happened backstage at the 1997 Oscars. It’s Angry Birds, and Candy Crush and YouTubes that perform no purpose other than fill time. Boredom these days isn’t emptiness, its overstimulation. Boredom doesn’t slow time down, it sucks you into an endless pit of spidering non sequitur websites until you force your consciousness to lose track of time.

When I was in school, I was part of a program called Odyssey of the Mind. It was a competition that was designed to encourage creativity and critical thinking. We used to have competitions where we built technical projects and themed them in some fantastical skit to show off our imagination. One year, my team had to build three machines that launched tennis balls at a target in different ways. And we had to build a skit around why these tennis balls needed to be in the targets.

Back on the train, I found myself drowned in my own thoughts wondering where those skills went. Nine-year-old Alexander saw a world of possibilities. He could build a catapult and see a submarine that needed to shoot tennis ball shaped fish home.

And then I looked at thirty-seven-year old Alexander soullessly riding the Metro North Train day in and day out like a helpless lemming.

I could feel my nine-year-old self judging me…

As much as I hated being alone with my thoughts at first, this new-fangled boredom felt cleansing and I needed more of it.

So, I doubled down on the tedium. I cancelled my smart phone service and ordered an AT&T flip phone, I began regressing from Facebook and all the other mind sucks. My wife was concerned that I was withdrawing from life but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I was trying to live life in the here and now, to see and feel what was surrounding me. I was trying to get in touch with me.

Spending that forced quality time with myself allowed me to accomplish things I never would have thought possible. I began to daydream again, play make believe, just like I did in the backyard of my childhood home back in Pepperell Massachusetts. With that burst of creativity as an inspiration, I started following random pursuits. I taught myself programming microcontrollers so I could invent a few completely useless devices. I designed my own arcade style game that I would eventually build in my basement. (A hybrid of Skeeball and Minigolf) I wrote a book.

In the journey after I ended my illustrious career as a filthy pirate, I found a reason to be proud of myself. I found a potential I had unconsciously suppressed most of my adult life with a technological lobotomy.

About a year ago, I got a job that required me to return to the twenty-first century. I now have a fancy smart phone with good service and I find it hard to resist the instant gratification the internet provides me. But occasionally… once a month or so… I let my battery run down, fold myself up in the train and force myself to stare at the back of the poor rider in front of me’s head, all the way to Grand Central.

For those 56 minutes, it’s truly beautiful.

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