BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 12 MAR 13
Featured in
Issue 153

Marking Time

Boredom and death: two sides of the same coin?

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 12 MAR 13

Adam McEwen, Untitled (Jeff), 2004, from a series of fictional obituaries

I wake up; brew a pot of tea; sit at the kitchen table; stare without seeing; drink a strong cup or two, and open The New York Times, which arrives at our front door rolled in a rubber band. If it comes. ‘Home delivery’ means the paper will be waiting like a dog at the front door, but technically our front door is the entire building’s and meets the street. Some mornings The Times is not there, because I wake late, and the unscrupulous notice it, out there in the open, and extremely petty criminals swoop and grab it, thinking, ‘Fuck them, I deserve it.’ No one deserves anything, but paying for it convinces you that you might.

In a television documentary about penguins, the camera followed so-called male non-breeding wanderers returning from the sea, at one year old I believe it was, and, when they landed on the beaches in huge numbers, they started building their nests, their first apartments, to court and win a female and propagate the species. The phrase ‘feathering your own nest’ is accurate. The camera watched the penguins waddling back and forth, gathering sticks and fluff; the camera also caught rogue penguins who waited in abeyance until a more industrious penguin had placed material on his nest and, when he waddled away, stole some fluff to feather their own nests. So it’s natural to be lazy, covet, steal, and it’s heartening, even gratifying, to regard such ‘bad’ traits as survival skills. I suppose it’s great that The New York Times is ever at the front door, and I can thank ‘civilization’ for that.

As a habit, I read page-one columns until they’re continued on another page; but don’t continue. Instead, I stroll through the pages, a flâneur, finishing the articles as they come along. A news-collage builds, information strewn in my mind, bleeding across columns. But if a Famous or Infamous Person has died, the obituary begins on page one, and is continued later in this section or the Business section. Then I am at liberty to turn instantly to the obituaries and read them all, including the listings paid for by families or friends.

Most days I resist instant gratification, as if resisting death itself. I don’t announce that to myself, but maybe I experience a subliminal pleasure – Putting It Off. It’s irresistible, finally. The obit page’s siren song constitutes a Major Sadistic Attraction: to know that others have died, not yourself, primarily and primitively.

I know some of my friends also read the obits, but we don’t discuss it. Death is forever pertinent but an obsession with it can appear unseemly or ugly. ‘Did you see so and so’s mother died?’ ‘Oh, yeah? Of what?’ When I read that my former gynaecologist’s mother died, I thought about sen­ding him a note, but decided against it. To people who don’t spend time reading the news of death, discussion of it might be boring or terrifying, two sides of the same coin. Yet the obituaries comfort me. The sentiments are the same, also how they’re written; and this sameness reassures this writer: how else can it be said? Name, date, husband, wife, partner, children, career, no career, wake, burial time. Everyone was a saint. Nothing else can happen now.

Sherwin B. Nuland’s book, How We Die (1994), taught me more than I wanted to know about ineluctability. Most everyone, he wrote, dies in a similar way. The body breaks down, one organ usually starts it; but like being conceived and born, dying follows a pattern. Nuland lays it out in pre-mortem detail, so finishing the book was a small, ghoulish triumph.

Boredom feels like dying to me. In my life so far, in the presence of three people at various functions – I won’t name them but their feat was memorable – I believed I might be bored to death. The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was once asked how he knew when to take someone into treatment. He replied: ‘When they bore me.’ I wonder if these three people bore themselves, feel boredom acutely or feel vital and engaging.

Which brings me to reality shows about hoarding. Viewers watch the agony of a hoarder begged to throw away an empty box, say; then view the hoarder’s ecstasy, after ‘purging’, upon seeing the living room floor again. The reality is a show of psychic death, since hoarders have built their own nests, which are mausoleums, where they bury themselves alive. Unlike prison shows, hoarders choose lockdown, suffocating their capacity for movement. This is a bored to death show, I realized. I might die watching it. And now I’m reminded of my acute anxiety seeing Christian Marclay’s extraordinary video The Clock (2010). It was Thursday – 3:15pm, 3:16pm, 3:17pm – I was watching time pass. My time. It was passing, and I was watching it. What is this watching, what am I watching for? I wouldn’t, couldn’t, wait for the end.

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.