The Show About Nothing

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Boredom is a very hard word to define.  It’s actually almost impossible to define.  There are so many different types of boredom and so many different types of situations in which boredom arises.  If you asked 100 people what boredom is, there is a pretty high chance you would get 100 different definitions.

To me, boredom is the absence of activity.  Nothingness.

However, if that is true, how is it that my all time favorite show is “a show about nothing?”  It almost makes no sense.  It makes no sense that I can be entertained by “nothing.”

But, Seinfeld, if you ask me (and just about any rational person), is the best show of all time.  It ran for nine years and was even ranked by TV Guide as the greatest television program of all time, however, for all nine years of its impressive run it was about nothing.

Now, I was not even born until Seinfeld was about half way through its run, but try not to hold that against me.   Through the power of syndication and the Internet, I have been lucky enough to see just about every episode at least once.  And, I can say for certain that at almost no point during any of the 180 episodes was I bored.

This leads to another question: what makes for an entertaining television show?

Obviously, if this question was easy to answer, there would be a lot less awful sitcoms that last for barely a season on TV and the thousands of pilots that never made it to air wouldn’t be just a bunch of pilots that never made it to air.  If I had to try to answer that question, though, I would say it takes a certain balance to make an entertaining TV show.  It takes a balance of drama and comedy while also including a cast of characters that viewers will genuinely care about, even though they don’t exist.

This causes another contradiction.  Although Seinfeld does have quite a few comedic moments (about a trillion), it includes almost no drama and even though I like Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer more than about 95% of the people I know, I never actually cared about them.   I never felt bad for Jerry or George when their countless romances never worked out.  And, same goes for Elaine and Kramer.  Even though there was never a real “happy ending” (usually the opposite occurred actually), I never cared.  It is safe to say that I had/have virtually no emotion invested in Seinfeld whatsoever.

Again, this makes no sense.  While having no emotion invested, I was thoroughly entertained for just about every second.  Even though I did not actually care about what happened or about any of the characters’ feelings, I was never bored.

This brings me back to the concept of boredom.  It is, in fact, impossible to define.  It is impossible to define when or where or why people get bored.

So, even though I cannot provide you with an accurate definition, I can provide you with some advice.  If you’re bored right now, turn on TBS and cross your fingers in hope that The Big Bang Theory isn’t on and enjoy an episode of Seinfeld or two.

 

A Blank Canvas

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As an artist, filling in a blank canvas can be difficult. The ability of the artist to cover the whiteness of the canvas is predetermined by its proportions. Too small, and it will be hard to fit ideas onto it without sacrificing detail. Too large, and some inadequacies, perhaps the artist’s inability to paint cloth folds, will be brought into light. It must be just the right size for the subject being drawn. Either way, a canvas, once bought, must be filledfor economic reasons, if nothing else.

I remember it clearly: a standard rectangular 30″ x 40″ canvas. A vast desert of whiteness that dominated my field of vision. It was gigantic. Of course, it is difficult to comprehend the largeness this monstrosity without some reliable unit of measurement. It was the size of a medium-ish window. Or twenty eight Kleenex tissue boxes stacked in a 5×8 fashion (that’s an estimation, and a pretty bad one, I think). The point is that it was very big, bigger than any canvas I had ever seen. And I had to fill in that empty space. Before attempting an oil painting, it is necessary to prep the canvas by covering it with one or two layers of paint. This is to facilitate the movement of the brush, so that it will be able to apply the oil paint smoothly without having to scratch over the canvas.

Back and forth, back and forth. It is remarkable how many brush strokes are needed to cover a mere corner of a 30″ x 40″ canvas. I start from the left corner and make the decision to fill it horizontally rather than going diagonally. A groundbreaking choice, sure to astound art critics all around the world. The act of moving the paint back and forth combined with the dry scratch of canvas against brush hairs creates a weird kind of drum beat. It is a monotonous, repetitive activity that must go on for at least an hour, if not more. It is easy to fall into a sort of spellthat lull in time where the eyes register what is occurring but the brain refuses to acknowledge it. You see every object but they are devoid of meaning. Nothing sparks an interest. Your mind wanders endlessly, casually sampling one thought after another, but never truly selecting one. It is blank. A canvas waiting to be filled.

Thinking about this experience, I now realize why nearly three-fourths of the students in my art class listened to music while painting. I used to believe that it was some tool to keep the listener filled with creative motivation or to stave off boredom. But perhaps boredomthe product of a constancy, whether it be an act or a sound, in the backgroundwas the goal. Perhaps boredom, rather than being the bane of the creative mind, is the medium that brings forth the creativity that is so sought after by artists.  After all, the root of everyday boredom is the absence of stimulating thoughts/ideas. Perhaps boredom is what decides whether an idea is worthy to be acknowledged.

The View from in Here

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Windows, a piece of glass set in a frame—usually made out of wood, metal, or a synthetic material—are our portals to the outside world. Some are large, beautiful pieces of artwork with intricate detail and color that do not look into the world outside, but another world completely, while others are bared and ugly, serving as reminders of one’s lack of freedom. Windows are often treasured. Bay windows and sunrooms are places of comfort, joy, and relaxation. At other times, especially sunrise when one’s window looks to the east, windows are loathed, detested, and despised. Regardless of their form or elicited emotions though, all windows share a common purpose: to expose one to the world and expand one’s situation.

Without windows, what would your Sunday afternoons look like? Mine would be sad, or at least sadder than they currently are. My Sundays are dedicated to homework, because I can’t seem to find the motivation to do it on Saturday. So every Sunday I find myself sitting on my bed, laptop lit up in front of me, textbook to the right and my snack of choice to the left and I stare ahead. My Sundays are, to put it simply, dull and predictable. Windows though, take me away from the predictable monotony of my day. Out of windows, there is always something to see. Even it’s the same view day after day, there’s something to appreciate about a world you are not directly a part of. In it, there are people you don’t know, doing things you’ll never get to experience, taking journeys of which you’ll never know the destination. That view offers an experience you can only imagine and so pulls you from the boredom you might feel into a world that, though you’ve seen it many times, has infinitely more possibilities than your current place, whether it be the cell you’re legally confined to, the desk in the tiny classroom, or the dorm room.

Windows also expose you to the changes that take place outside of the bubble that you might becomes engrossed in from time to time. Windows are a reminder that the world around you is moving forward while you sit in an uninterested trance. They let in the light that shows the passing of time. The sun, content with its consistent control over planetary motion, laughs as it slowly moves from one side of the expansive sky to the other. The knowledge of time it gives you seems as if it’s enough to snap you into action but, alas, it is not. Clouds lazily float by and the world continues spinning while you sit, stand, lay in front of the window, passively ignoring the work at hand to watch the world move.

Windows can be and are beautiful, imposing, transparent barriers trapping one in one’s current situation. They’re power of suggestion makes boredom extraordinarily intolerable because it gives way to a type of jealousy and procrastination recognition. Windows illustrate that boredom is born of knowledge of the world around us. With an understanding of what we could be doing, and what other people might be doing, we lose ourselves to imagination and craved situations.

User-Generated Time

A YouTube user (whose name I never bothered to learn) posted several videos of his vinyl collection. The set-up was always the same: stationary camera facing an open turntable, next to which the cover of whatever album was playing sat. A lone white-hot desk lamp, shining against a blank white wall. No movement, except for the needle crawling across the disc. The music was always subdued, cool-colored: trip-hop or low-key electronic.

The entire album played through in this way, the unseen user flipping the disc to side two when appropriate. The sound was full. The visuals empty. You could hear the pops and hisses. I would listen to the videos while typing papers, for background music. When I got stuck on a word or a sentence, I would click to the video’s window and watch the emptiness. Try to spot variations of light on the spinning vinyl. Watch the needle move, like the minute hand on a clock. Let my eyes wander between the featureless black shadow at the bottom of the frame and the featureless white glow of the lamp and the hot spot on the wall. The desk lamp had a bottom joint that glowed blue, to match the sound.

Why was I so hypnotized by this image? It probably reminded me of lying in bed as a teenager, listening in the dark with headphones on. It whispered to me of the immense pleasures of doing nothing.

I admired the work that went into these videos. The user seems to always stay with the record just off-camera until the end, sitting, listening, watching for mistakes. In the video above, the record starts to skip at about the 17:00 mark, and the user lifts the needle and edges it forward. I sometimes wondered how long it took to get the set-up right: how to angle the lamp, where to put the camera, how to ensure that the cover doesn’t fall down. I liked thinking about this attentive idleness as a form of work. This studied inactivity. Where did the user get the idea to do this? Why commit to making several videos of it?

I never watched one of these unwaveringly, all the way through. But I have watched for several minutes at a time and never felt my attention wavering, never felt myself getting bored by it. The composition seems just right, just so. It has just enough negative space to be serene, just enough movement to see time passing without marking the passage of time. I could never show this to anyone or watch it with anyone. Watching for a reaction or becoming self-conscious would make it boring. It would ruin the spell.

Maybe there are other kinds of spells like this. Idle activities that repeat and repeat but don’t wear out. If they exist, they must be private spells. We get bored too easily anticipating the boredom of others. It’s too easy to demonize technology for isolating us: headphones, solitary screens. Isolation can be beautiful, if it happens in the right way.