August 10, 2020 by libroshombre
My just-before-bed reading is often one of Nero Wolfe’s mysteries narrated by the great detective’s henchman, Archie. Last night Archie described a man as, “He was like the mule in the story that kept running into trees; he wasn’t blind, he was just so mad he didn’t give a damn.” This resonated because I’ve been contemplating some intriguing words, including one especially relevant to our times. What with the coronavirus spiraling, the economy in shambles, popular uprisings against racism, and Russian-paid Taliban assassins, who among us isn’t “exhaustipated,” a newly coined Internet word meaning “too tired to give a s***”?
What better time to re-institute the annual Boring Conference? Last held in 2010, this was “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious, and the overlooked, subjects often considered trivial and pointless, but when examined more closely reveal themselves to be deeply fascinating.” Twenty people were chosen to speak for ten minutes about subjects they found intriguing, such as sneezing, the sounds made by vending machines, toast, how to prepare “elaborate meals” using the usual amenities found in hotel rooms, similarities between 198 national anthems, and electric hand dryers “by a man so fascinated by them he had installed a Dyson Airblade in his house.”
Feeling better already? Now that our library’s open on a limited basis, you might be able to utilize the first Interior Alaskan Dyson Airblades (reduce vandalism, quicker, quieter, and more efficient than blowers) at Noel Wien Library that have long since paid for themselves. Yes, I’d’ve enjoyed that hand dryer presentation.
The English word “boredom” was coined in 1852 by Charles Dickens in “Bleak House,” according to Smithsonian.com’s “The History of Boredom,” but the concept’s as ancient as civilization. In Roman times, Seneca defined boredom as a form of nausea, and in the Christian tradition it’s called “acedia, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The ‘noonday demon,’ as one of the early chroniclers called it … a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often associated with monks and other people who led cloistered lives. The Quakers weaponized boredom by establishing a new imprisonment system in Pennsylvania: the “penitentiary.” Led by Continental Congressman and Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia Quakers witnessed Europe’s horrible prison conditions, with criminals all locked together and left to their own terrifying devices. In 1790 the Quakers “constructed a prison in Philadelphia in which prisoners were kept in isolation at all hours of the day. The idea was that the silence would help them to seek forgiveness from God. In reality, it just drove them insane.” It was known as “the house of repentance,” hence the term “penitentiary.”
Rush was “a newly minted English medical doctor” when he met Benjamin Franklin in London, who inspired him about Philadelphia’s thriving Enlightenment. He relocated and became a leading colonial medical authority and political activist, and, during the Revolutionary War, was Washington’s Continental Army doctor. However, in the war’s darkest days, Rush sent several nasty, anonymous letters condemning Washington’s leadership to Virginia governor Patrick Henry and John Adams that quoted General Thomas Conway saying only God’s grace kept the army together despite Washington’s weakness and lack of authority,” and he should be immediately replaced.
Henry showed the unsigned letters to Washington, Rush’s handwriting was recognized, he was sent packing, and the shameful “Conway Cabal” exposed. Years later Rush was still covering his tracks, convincing Chief Justice John Marshall to leave his sordid letters out of Marshall’s 1803 biography of Washington. That same year, however, President Jefferson asked Rush to tutor Merriweather Lewis in practical survival medicine prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wikipedia notes that Rush also provided the expedition’s medicine chest, including “Turkish opium for nervousness, emetics to induce vomiting, medicinal wine, and fifty dozen of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, laxatives containing more than 50% mercury, which have since been colloquially been referred to as ‘thunderclappers’ … Although their efficacy is questionable, their high mercury content provided an excellent tracer by which archeologists have been able to track the corps’ actual route to the pacific.”
We must pay attention and respond to the big events facing us, but must also actively seek out beauty to tide us over. Like strolling around Noel Wien Library’s grounds, noting the small wonders all around, like those gorgeous flowers that appear there every spring, thanks to the Borough’s Parks Department, and now the library’s open on a limited basis, try out the Dysons. For whenever you espy beauty, follow Nero Wolfe’s orders, “You stick to it, Archie, like a leech to an udder.”