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  • Ken Ilgunas

On being dull

“You’re boring!” In high school, a fellow student said this to me. “You never have anything to say!” he added. Some girls in the class leapt to my defense, but I was unmoved by the insult. (Insults only hurt when someone points out what you’re not ready to admit.) I already knew I was boring. I’m reminded of my insulter because I feel like I’ve been at my “peak boring” — my Mount Dull — for these past few years. Nothing dulls you quicker than being a parent. Having a child is like injecting anesthesia into your personality. For the past three years, I’ve been groggily pushing my child on swings, endlessly tidying the kitchen, and resentfully mending the shoddy house we bought. Last month, I spent a whole week sanding three interior doors and ripping moldy drywall out of my kitchen—it was seven days of toil that could be summarized with a grunt. I used to be able to skim through tons of books, soak up lots of movies, and keep up with the news. For a few years, I was perched somewhere among the top 5 percent of people abreast of developments in culture and thought. Such is the fortune of someone who has neither debt, a job, nor children. This consumption of content always gave me something to say. But, since then, I’ve become a conversational stonewall. In conversations with my wife, I offer little more than pre-language throat noises: “mmm hmm,” “mmm,” or “mmff!,” which, when typed out, look like interesting porn categories, but are responses that make conversations crash and die. I agree with my high school insulter: I am fundamentally boring. And it’s not just the parenting that makes me boring. I am slow-witted. I have no gift for oral storytelling. I have a poor memory of facts. I’m too much of a loner to gather good gossip. I rarely offer an anecdote. Never a joke. When I’m invited to brunch, I leave thinking that my hosts will never invite the quiet guy back. I’ll say this in my defense, though. As a rule, I think being quiet is more polite than subjecting listeners to dull anecdotes. And sometimes I do have something interesting to say, but not a receptive audience for the highly-specialized miscellanea that interest me: the interpersonal dynamics between players on my rec league sports teams; the Buffalo Bills’ not-so-bad off-season; Ulysses S. Grant’s astonishing life-journey; the growing prevalence of UFO stories in mainstream media; or the triumph of Succession’s fourth season and the misfires in Black Mirror’s sixth. It takes two to make one dull. My parent-friends who have two kids — a toddler and an infant — are in an even worse position. When we all get together, we have little to talk about other than our kids—development milestones, potty updates, nursery appraisals, our regrets for renouncing contraception. Mostly, we just spend two hours either being interrupted by our kids or yelling at them from afar to not do something. The consequences of our dulldom aren’t dire. Eventually, we’ll go back to our interesting jobs, take up old hobbies, pursue new dreams, and consume films and books worthy of discussion. But there was once a time in my life when I felt like my boringness was a serious matter that needed addressing. During my college years, I was what you might call a pre-social media “involuntary celibate” (couldn’t get laid and also couldn’t complain about it on the Internet). The problem wasn’t my smarts or my looks. (I was a good student, free from all date-ending deformities or asymmetries.) The problem was that I was boring. Like many young men, I enjoyed trying to master skills, compete against friends, and achieve goals in videogames. I liked watching hockey on TV. I liked getting obscenely drunk playing beer pong with friends. I couldn’t have been more ordinary. And going to the gym to pump up biceps didn’t compensate for my boringness. I mostly didn’t mind being boring. But when love and physical attention continued to elude my grasp throughout the first half of my twenties (inconveniently at the peak of my desires), I, in quick order, quit all videogames, stopped watching sports, and passed a temperance amendment to my personal constitution. I embarked on a journey of self-transformation — to make myself interesting — by throwing myself into my coursework, embarking on risky adventures, and consuming good art. Here’s a rare anecdote from me: Once an old man, who picked me up hitchhiking, said, “Sounds like your pecker is taking ya across the world.” I'd told him that I was traveling thousands of miles to see my then-girlfriend. You could also say that my pecker also played a role in compelling me to open up Middlemarch, to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc, or to write my first book. In time, I went from being invisible to visible. From incel to enticing. From self-abuse to, well, you get the idea. But, at bottom, I was and, to some extent, still am my boring high school self—a guy who’d derive plenty of pleasure from a tray of greasy pizza and an all-night Civ VI marathon. Anthony Bourdain once said, “I understand there's a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” Bourdain and I have one thing in common: we’re aware and critical of our dullness. The only thing left to do is carefully draw up and adhere to a syllabus of self-enrichment. Some sort of artificial mechanism, requiring sacrifice and discipline, is probably too much for most people, so I’m tempted to end this by saying that it’s okay to be dull. But the truth is that I can’t stand dull people. When I’m stranded with dull people at a social event I begin to fantasize about overturning a table laden with silverware, cheerfully exposing myself, or taking some ridiculous political position just to keep myself stimulated. The weight of some people’s dullness is so heavy that you become a mere comet fixed in an inescapable orbit around an unimaginable mass of worthless anecdotes and tedious monologues. But I can’t stand the dull mostly because they remind me of the worst of myself—and because they haven’t put in the work to become aware of their dullness or develop their own syllabus of enrichment. Being dull is a killer to your existential life the same way greasy pizza is a killer to your cardiovascular system. It’s the wastefulness that’s repulsive. Let me proclaim into the cosmic void — to those who have the fortune of leisure — that we should all climb down from our Mount Dulls as best we can. Think of it as socio-cultural hygiene. For the same reason we roll deodorant into our armpits, we should consume that which enriches, makes us think and feel, and that gives us something meaningful to say. Chuck the Big Mac and eat your veggies; quit your true-crime podcast and chow down on some Ken Burns. Eat your cold tofu and go cold turkey on Marvel. Follow your pecker to George Eliot but always use contraception. It’s as much for others, as it is for ourselves.

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