五大 – Zen boredom


“Everything feels remote and random from afar.”
“Yeah, I have also had my a-ha moment: This is fucking boring.”

Dear “Hideo”,

My friend Emi and I once gave her abusive boyfriend Ed the nickname “Yuki” (after the yuki daruma, or snowman. Why? Because in tough situations, he melted and/or ran away. Same difference, right?). I will call you “Hideo”; first because bestowing fictional names is hard. Second because there is something about the hesitant nature of your cowardice, how your self-esteem and your desires bounce wildly, up and down, like a rubber ball uncontrollably hitting the walls in an empty room, that reminds me of an actual Hideo I once knew. He was easily scared, a bundle of nerves but driven by supposed feelings and strong urges that he regretted almost as soon as he admitted or gave in to them. I recall how, as the hours ticked on, spending non-stop, sleepless days and nights wandering through Tokyo with him, we got into minor disasters that led onward to other seemingly endless obligations. He, distracted while driving his Mazda Miata in bumper-to-bumper city traffic (the standard for Tokyo), rear ended another car, setting into motion days of events related to this minor fender-bender. He was high-strung, hung up on the rightness, procedure, protocol, etiquette of how to handle every post-collision step.

My tiredness and jet lag during those interminable days made me grow calmer and more docile than normal – I may as well have been catatonic. On balance I became increasingly bored until I was more interested in how air conditioning blowing full-blast in a hotel room could not remove the stifling humidity of the clinging, wet September air; it merely made us shiver in sticky frigidity as we awkwardly attempted to have sex, which made him into a fumbling, nervous wreck, both before and after. I became even more tuned-out and bored, but felt a tingling of interest about the background story as to how Sanrio characters ended up being used on the packaging of condoms, like those he’d found at the local 7-11. Badtz Maru the penguin is Japanese sexy time for me forever after.

It is this same kind of disengaged, but intellectual and detail-oriented “let’s see how this turns out” interest that remains when I think of you. It is with dwindling, and possibly non-existent, interest that I write, isolated from whatever excitement or warmth I had once perceived or felt. The feeling, as I have tried to say a million times before – but have stopped myself for one reason or another – departed a long time ago. Today, interaction (if it could be called that) is rote, checking in because checking in is what you do at some point – expected, de rigueur. It’s passionless and entirely devoid of heartfelt curiosity and certainly of urgency or magic, maybe even devoid of real concern. It’s exactly the daily life I never wanted, going through the motions, saying hello during brief windows of available time, running through the dull (and duller) lists of daily activities and a gloss-over mood check. A few platitudes, meant to be reassuring. Each interval feels compartmentalized, and in no compartment is there any fever, flurry, fury or impulse to do, to act, to entwine, to overlap, simply to be together. The lack (of all these things) should not feel personal but does. And probably is. I kept making an effort but was the only one wandering in that compartment, either because I really was the only one who was genuinely interested or because you really are that self-involved, selfish, blind and thoughtless, or as your ex-wife had hissed repeatedly: “unfeeling”. I am a small part of a nebulous problem, one fine, almost invisible, strand in the tangled web of which I occasionally get a glimpse, but into which I am not interwoven.

I knew I would be stepping into an unpredictable tempest of an entanglement – received fair and early warning. Not quite the all-caps screaming, lights flashing warning, which, upon reflection, might have been more appropriate: UNKNOWN TERRITORY. I did not know that that “unknown territory” would be so boring, and that the ‘agony’ of it would be so humdrum. Wishing for small signs, never seeing any because signs don’t exist in uncharted territory, but interpreting the smallest things as much bigger than they are because they are the only perceptible signs of any kind. Every ‘sign’ is either my imagination and/or something that keeps me on the hook (probably not done maliciously or consciously but done nevertheless). Realizing that the two of us are, actually, ridiculously self-centered, both cut from cloth but in completely different patterns, we aren’t going to be sewn together. I already know I will never be – and never was going to be – one of those women who, godforbid, marries a Boeing machinist named Rick, Scott or Bill who drives a fully loaded Ford F350 Power Stroke Diesel, and who spends the rest of her life doing laundry, trying to match up stray socks while lamenting this stupid, stupid mistake of a life, so it is not as though I have been waiting around for some standard, prescriptive finality or entrapment.

Yet, I have been trapped by my own feelings, the certainty and level of them unprecedented for me – but also unreciprocated in their depth and truth. It was an illusion for you, a stepping stone out of an unhappy situation and the mania that followed. I don’t see why it makes sense to stand still to discover that no, after so much time, I really was just a well-equipped harbor in which a damaged ship could complete repairs, but not at all someone with whom a person could see him or herself ‘setting sail’, so to speak. I keep ending up in this situation – thinking that in the absence of something else (i.e., I would not be otherwise occupied with emotional entanglements and similar horse shit, so sitting on the periphery, waiting for the madness to abate or for the feelings to become clear, doesn’t hurt). Yet, even if it does not usually hurt (but sometimes does – I grew in very short order to feel shut out and isolated), and does not stand in the way of anything else I would not be pursuing anyway, I’m selfish with my time, and it’s being squandered – right now. Particularly because once again I’ve put myself in a situation where the terms are all dictated by someone else and their needs, their life’s circumstances. I am not sure it can easily – or ever – be otherwise because everyone else’s lives are so dramatic – or, better said, everyone else is so filled with anxiety, nerves, troubles to the point that they elevate everything into an all-caps BIG DEAL. And almost nothing is a big deal to me. I go with the flow, and you’re easily pulled into the undertow.

Another part of all this is the undercurrent of feeling foolish and suspicious – there are hidden things, activities, falsehoods and booby traps, all silently taking place in the background, behind all the doors and compartments (for whatever reason – to keep all options open, to not hurt anyone’s feelings, to avoid a ‘serious’ or uncomfortable discussion or make any choices). I was just left to wait, wonder, wait, wonder, wait, watching the clock, feeling the days creep by, knowing this was nowhere I wanted to be today, next Halloween or anytime in the foreseeable future. In the beginning, once beyond the skepticism, most barriers down, I am all or nothing – ready – open – ripe – for complete upheaval and transformation (even if it is fraught with uncertainty and uncomfortable change). But when that willingness is met with doubt, a lukewarm response, mania, avoidance, long periods of silence, masks … anything but what I would need to drop anchor, so to speak, all moves swiftly toward nothing.

At first there was sadness and pain (it comes with realizing that someone with whom you have haplessly fallen in love is not who you thought they were – and they don’t feel the way they proclaimed in some misguided, too-early frenzy), then there was uncertainty and resignation (this is the internal argument – you already know your feelings are all but dead, but you’re wondering if you should make a last-ditch attempt at CPR), then came the release of clarity with unfeeling and indifference (accepting that the feelings are gone – those feelings, anyway) peppered by a dash of the compassion I’d extend to anyone swept up in the whirlwind of personal crisis – not my personal crisis, even if I were a piece of the puzzle. And then, somewhat surprisingly, one nondescript day, came boredom. Deceit, dodging, shame, self-preservation, boredom, lack of feeling or whatever is actually going on behind the scenes might matter to me if I weren’t first annoyed-bored out of my mind, followed by the serenity of zen boredom, just like that September day in an icy-humid Tokyo hotel room. Zen boredom, by which I am overcome and to which I have completely succumbed.

In some, but not all, ways, this experience mirrored an entanglement from many, many years earlier (so long ago that it was another century). I met a smart, funny, seemingly stable guy, R, who had shown what seemed to be deep and genuine interest in me. Early on, in the interest of transparency and openness, not wanting to scare me away sometime in the future, he talked about the period in his life to which he referred as “The Dark Years”. It had been the late 1980s, early 1990s, when aimlessness, music and heroin flowed freely – but still well before the spotlight was shone on this ‘gritty underworld’ of Seattle, which eventually exploded into broader public consciousness. There were a number of local, high-profile overdose deaths at the time, and this R character had apparently been a part of this scene, had been friends with these departed people. This history that he dug up and shared felt totally incongruous to the life he projected by the late 1990s – professional, conscientious, tremendous follow-through, baseball enthusiast and whatever-other-stuff mainstream-seeming American dudes did then. Totally out of step with this personality, the goals, the drive I had seen. I could not reconcile the two. (I later learned, and still need to remember, that the ‘demon’ of the dark years – for everyone who experiences such things – is never really dead. It is always there to seize onto a thread of vulnerability and unravel everything, eventually weaving its way back into a position of influence, the loudest voice in the person’s head. The surface is, after all, just the surface.)

Briefly, I had had considerable joy with him. We could put ourselves into garlic comas at the local Mediterranean joint; we could geek out over baseball players, strategy, terminology and stats; I could mesmerize him with my eyes, until he said stupid things like, “You are so beautiful” over cliche flickers of candlelight. We could end up bruised and carpet-burned on every surface of our bodies, pierced by punishing, raw physicality. None of it really mattered, which was the point. Because life was not at all the same then as it is now. I am much older, less patient with nonsense (even if a whole lot more compassionate). At the time of the Dark Years R affair, I actually lived with my boyfriend – a boyfriend who was not R. R was someone on the side, about whom my boyfriend knew. It had been his idea to ‘structure’ the relationship this way. Open. Mostly for his benefit, even if he did not benefit from it very often. I was young and figured I should take advantage. The danger, of course, is that you can get swept up in the intensity of the non-official, non-sanctioned affair. Because the affair has no stakes, you can actually lose yourself in it much more easily.

In fact, I look back and think that, unlike in more traditional situations, where one person meets and likes and is shy/nervous/in the throes of a crush on another person, the fact that I was already spoken for, in some way, was like a safety net. It erased all the inhibitions and hang-ups that come with fumbling-meeting-dating idiocy generally. I was free to be exactly who I was without any kind of self-doubt because I didn’t care what any person I subsequently met thought or felt. In meeting R, in greeting his wide-eyed amazement at the balance between my love for baseball and my intellect, my academic interests and out-of-control sexual appetites (or whatever – these are things he said, true or not) and everything else (possibly even the fact that I was not available), I could just enjoy the situation and then walk away.

But because it was so easy, and I felt no attachment, it morphed into, as I wrote, “getting swept up in the intensity”, which emerged without even realizing it. A strange attachment did start to form, during which he declared a whole lot of feelings, started making plans about the future, asked me to consider leaving the boyfriend, moving to a new city, and for a split second it almost sounded reasonable. You see, danger.

Before I ever had to decide anything, or even give it any real thought, though, he started to withdraw. I can never really know what precipitated it, despite what he said, the little seeds he planted – his excuses. The last time I saw him was intense and physical – but also totally disconnected. I felt nothing but the inevitable ending, and I knew it would be the last time I would see or talk to him. In bed in semi-darkness, not saying a word, his face betrayed regret, written thinly over a deeper layer of detachment – both emotional and chemically induced distance.

“I think the Dark Years are returning,” he announced, as he turned over and away from me. I knew what this meant – regardless of whether the actual darkness and its accompanying past activities and addictions had really returned or not, this was his escape route. I understood that there was a huge part of his life that I did not and could not understand. Only problem was that he did not need to make flimsy or unnecessary excuses – he could have walked away without a word any time – he had always been the one to insist that there was a ‘future’ to be had together, but that idea mostly left me silent – and bored. Despite the intensity, I had never asked for or wanted that. I did not want anything, and if I had, it would not have been that.

That last time was an early morning in late winter, maybe early spring, grey as all Seattle mornings are in my memory, and R crawled out of bed, and started dressing to go to work. I did not bother to get dressed. I was anxious just to be rid of him, pressing him toward the door, feeling a sense of relief that this was just a few minutes and a few meters away from being a part of the past.

“It’s been fun,” I said in a flat tone, standing in the doorway, watching as he walked out onto the landing. He kept looking back at me as he walked away, repeating, falsely reassuring, “Don’t worry — I’ll call.” With sardonic smile, I said, “Okay.” I shut the door knowing I would never see or hear from that guy again. (No suspense: I never did.) I turned on the tv to see another relic of “the dark years” (otherwise known as the 1980s), the film White Nights, with its dismal Lionel Richie theme. Another smirk. I made coffee, and chalked this whole thing up to experience – the experimental years I would later refer to, as now, as my own dark years.

And yet this experience has not saved me from letting the same kind of misguided forces pull me toward and through unwarranted intensity and misplaced feeling. Or imagining there is a future when there isn’t. Or finally reaching that place where I know what’s coming – no matter the reasons and their antecedents – and I just smirk, perfectly zen, and say, “Okay, I was bored anyway.”

Bored, but sincere.

Photo (c) 2011 Antony Mayfield