Bland is Beautiful

Posted on October 17, 2011


I’ve always been intrigued by boring things. I know that’s odd, because humans are wired for excitement. Our brains can stand to be uninterested for just so long, and then they go looking for adventure. If we’re in school and watching a film about the harvesting of soybeans, or if we live in Canada and we’re listening to a political debate, our minds fly out of the room before we know it. We’re distracted by sound when it’s been quiet for a while, or by motion if all is still. We crave stimulation.

But sometimes, life is mundane and tedious. How do we deal with it?

When I was a little boy, my father and I used to drive to the dry cleaner on Saturday afternoons. I was sure it had to be the most boring spot on the face of the Earth. I remember watching the owner, a short man with glasses who seemed to be shriveling from the inside out. He worked in a store filled with suits and dresses, all hanging on a crowded, circular track and covered with thin plastic. Each garment had a ticket stapled to the top. The entire place was gray, and everything moved in slow motion, as though in a dream, but the kind of dream that you forget even before you wake up. Today, after two decades without stepping foot in a dry cleaner, whenever I hear the word garment, it feels as though someone has unscrewed a drain plug in the back of my head and my enthusiasm for life is leaking out.

The only other experience I recall that even approached the dry cleaner’s level of dullness was sitting in the waiting room at our dentist’s office. I can still hear the squeak of the carpeted floor as we walked over to the chairs lined up against the far wall. A small coffee table held magazines, mostly about oral hygiene, or fishing, and all from the late 1950s. Even then, my brain’s quest for at least some minor arousal was evident, and the prospect of reading a twelve-page article on the benefits of proper brushing usually convinced me to select an issue of Trout Illustrated instead.

Thrills, I sensed, were relative.

And also, in the back of my mind, I was aware of the high-pitched squeal of the dentist’s drill. The sound came from behind his closed door, so I was never sure if he was working on another patient or warming up the system just for me. At the very least, I knew that within minutes I would feel the cool metal chain against my neck as he positioned a paper bib on my chest. And then he’d be reaching for one of his tiny, bent ice picks, and would be stabbing me in the gums with it. After that, he’d jab it into each of my teeth, determined that if he couldn’t find a cavity, he’d create one. Thinking about that made the trout magazine all the more fascinating. I’ve never gone fishing in my life, by the way. I couldn’t pull a live animal out of the water, partly, I suppose, because I have some subconscious awareness of what that hook would feel like against its teeth and gums.

As a Catholic school student, I found church especially difficult. I had to be there on Sunday mornings, but physical presence wasn’t enough: my mind had to be present, as well, attentive and receptive. The trouble was, the Mass was in Latin, and if you’ve ever been an eight-year-old boy and had to listen to a priest chanting prayers in a language whose alphabet consists of four consonants and two vowels, you know that an hour can feel like a century. About ten minutes into the service, my mind would split into separate fragments. One piece would be thinking about the Yankee game and wondering who was pitching that day. Another would be at the candy store, where I always stopped on my way home from church to buy the newspaper and a comic book. And yet another would be screaming reminders that God knew I was daydreaming, that He could see me slouching when I should have been kneeling with my back straight, and that my reservation in Hell was likely being booked at that very moment.

I’m still not sure how to deal with boredom. Sometimes I’ll run into an acquaintance at the post office, someone I haven’t seen in ten years, and he’ll launch into a monologue that seems designed to fill in that gap with every single thing that’s happened to him during the past decade. By the time he gets around to describing in horrific detail his fourth colonoscopy, I’d be willing to leap from a speeding bullet train to get away. But I also find myself wondering: is it possible that I’m this boring, too, just in different ways? My favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla. I like cheese pizza, regular potato chips, and plain doughnuts. I’ve never smoked anything, don’t have a tattoo, and wear solid-color shirts with nothing written on them. I have no stories about the time I got drunk in San Antonio, because I’ve never been to Texas, and have never been drunk. I avoid loud noise and loud people, prefer reading a book to watching television, and I’d rather attend a lecture or a play than a party or a concert. When I first heard the word charisma, I immediately wondered what the opposite was, because I think that’s what I have.

Could this be the root of all insecurity — the fear that others will find us boring? Might it explain why we expend so much energy working on our image? Does it account for the number of ways we try to convince friends and strangers that we’re quirky and unique and fun? I have no hope that I could ever fool anyone into believing those things about me. People who know me surely know better, and those who don’t will soon figure it out. At the same time, I no longer pay attention to those who demand my attention. I’d rather make that decision for myself.

And here’s what I’ve noticed. When I stop worrying about whether I’m too boring for the rest of the world, I begin to feel more connected to the human race. Or at least some part of it. The part that supports rather than attacks, and understands that playing fair is more important than winning. There really are a lot of good people out there. And what makes them good has nothing to do with glamour, money, or power. It has to do with values. I know that sounds dull, but I don’t care anymore. In fact, I can’t think of anything that’s more interesting.

Meanwhile, there’s a documentary on television about the harvesting of soybeans. I may watch it and I may not. When you’re as exciting as I am, you just never know.