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Bored to Death

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As we reflect on our debts this week -- or make damn sure the IRS at least thinks we have -- it's prudent we cut through the fat of W-2s and declaring dependents. Let's settle America's financial crisis right here. Salute a real American hero ... Me.

It may have taken a year, large chunks of my sanity and some of my hair, but I finally did it. I beat the unbeatable. Conquered the unconquerable. I finished reading David Foster Wallace's final novel, The Pale King. An epic about the IRS -- yes, you just read that -- that at 548 pages still remains "unfinished."

Now, it's not that 548 pages is especially long, but, you try reading something that feels like you've chosen to stay home on a Friday to file your taxes for fun. The book embodies dullness. And, I actually mean that as a compliment. Compound that with my generation's shortened attention span and ... wait, are you still reading?

Unless you're a predestined GS-11 -- and I certainly am not -- there is something perverse and inexplicable about committing to such a journey.

Fragmented, frenzied, that post-modern, tornadic, God's-eye-view storytelling method. Wallace's endless footnotes, footnotes' footnotes, leftover "notes and asides" he'd written on the pages included for your added consideration at the end, chapter-upon-chapter of shop-talk deep within the IRS. The Pale King, is ambitious to say the least. Which might be why the foreword reads more like warning than preamble.

There's nothing worse than boredom. It's intolerable, innately sad, abstractly terrifying. We have no cure. We don't fully understand it. But, then, these are also some of boredom's virtues.

[There are advantages] to the mind-numbingly complex ... The IRS knows very well that such qualities help insulate them from public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.

- David Foster Wallace

Our tax-codes, laws and really anything important enough to be fought over in government, use boredom as rhetoric. Phrasing complicated concepts in impregnable language streamlines and often side-steps public acceptance entirely so that we're typically unaware anything is happening outside our tiny bubble of attention, comforted by familiar white noise in the background, tasting tap water.

This sort of dullness is a covert weapon, a bottomless pit. If you aren't careful when wrestling with such crushing boredom, instead of finding yourself just immersed, you might get swallowed whole (See: Sartre's No Exit). Much like Wallace found himself mired in the construction of his ultimately unfinished book. And I have in writing about it.

Beating such extreme tedium can be as harrowing as it is cathartic, and a site to discover genuine courage. Many of us may never jump in front of a bullet for the President, fight in Iraq or save a school bus full of children, but as just citizens we can be courageous simply in "showing up for work" -- dutifully challenging ourselves to engage with the forces that are shaping our everyday lives, whether it's talking down to us or not.

Boring through the static is very Zen. It's a discipline, an opportunity. Like karate, finishing The Pale King, panning the news for relevance, or, just maybe, reading this.