Being boring

Being boring

This past July, I went with my whole family to St. Louis for a Cardinals baseball game, the first in crucial four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates, their chief National League Central rival. One of my sisters lives in southwestern Pennsylvania, so her family follows the Pirates while also maintaining allegiance to the Cards, who are the lifelong favorites of my father and many many other people in central Illinois. My ten-year-old niece bravely wore a yellow-and-black Bucs shirt among the sea of red in our part of the stadium, and though I playfully booed her, I was super proud of her spirit.

In that part of the Midwest, there’s a vague 30% chance of thunderstorms somehow popping up pretty much every mid-summer day, and the game was delayed for about an hour by thunder and lightning that didn’t actually deliver any precipitation to the field. Nonetheless, when play started, the Cardinals were as sluggish as the humidity. 

To the thrill of us all, the gentle but badass Adam Wainwright was pitching. He was not at his most dominant, though, and the Pirates started generating offense from the get-go. But somehow, they weren’t scoring. Several of their at-bats ended tensely with men on base – a couple of clutch double plays were required – and each time with a massive accumulated sigh of relief from the home fans. 

We were also sighing because the Cardinals were doing nothing with their bats. I think they had a grand total of two hits going into the ninth inning. There was never a moment of offense to really get the crowd to its feet, and if not for a brief shower midway through the game, most butts would have stayed planted for the duration. My eight-year-old nephew somehow managed to curl up in a hard plastic ballpark seat and conk out completely. 

Despite the Pirates scarily loading the bases in the eighth inning, the game was still scoreless going into the ninth. With the weather delays, it was getting late (especially for the Midwest), and the fans started streaming out in the top of the inning as it became obvious that the Pirates wouldn’t score and that we were probably headed for extra innings given the Cardinals’ desultory offense. 

This was really disappointing. We were staying in a hotel that was just a short walk from the stadium, so I guess I shouldn’t knock on the fans who had to get to their cars and battle downtown traffic to get home to the suburbs. And everyone was tired and shiny with sweat. But still: you see the game out, right?

Yes, you do. The Cards got a leadoff walk in the ninth, and after one out, Matt Adams sharply lined a home run to right field. Such a hit is called a “walk-off home run,” because it ends the game and thus everyone walks off the field. Really, truly: the moment it was struck, the Pirates players knew the ball was gone, and they quickly trotted to the dugout. I have never seen such an ending to a ball game in person, and it was as sad and strange (for the Pirates) as it was thrilling (for the Cardinals, all of whom surrounded home plate to greet Adams as he rounded the bases; these grown men joyfully jumped up and down – like, pogoed, actually – and it was beautiful). 

I couldn’t have been more content as I walked through the happy throngs of fans back to the hotel with my still-half-dozing nephew on my back. This was simply the greatest baseball game I had ever seen in person. So I just couldn’t believe it when I later heard so many people call it “boring,” even if they qualified that by saying that the ending was great. 

But then this was during the World Cup, and the word “boring” had a certain enhanced popular currency. Despite an above-average number of goals in the group stage, the games in the knockout stage reverted to type with mostly low- or no-score games (the Germany-Brazil semi excepted, of course). Which one might think meant that the better teams, having survived the group stage, were showing us how the game was supposed to be played by the most highly-skilled footballers. Or which one might find “boring,” I suppose.

My parents very kindly keep a room for me in their home in central Illinois, and I store a few things there for use during my frequent visits. I keep two photobooks on the dresser: Listening to the River and The Pond. So let’s talk boring.

For the past several years, I have been primarily attracted to works of art in which, on the surface, nothing much really happens. I haven’t experienced any action/adventure movies or books for a long time, and the bands I see don’t hardly play guitar solos or have much beyond basic lighting and stage design. 

Which, don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing against the eventful. I probably am missing out not having seen any of the recent Batman films. But I am finding myself more deeply satisfied by the uneventful. I wish Marilynne Robinson would write fiction more often, but I can very happily reread her four books multiple times, all while hearing from friends that they just couldn’t get into Housekeeping, which is by far her novel with the most “action.” This fall, I was absolutely hooked on nothing really happening in the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and I couldn’t be more delighted that there are more than 3,000 pages in five books still awaiting me, and like half of them not even translated yet.

So obviously, that’s why Robert Adams is just killing it for me these days. Especially in the quieter (is there any photographer within whose work “quiet” is a more relative term?) books like Cottonwoods, Skogen, This Day, and Notes for an Overcast Day, among several others, and 2012’s showing of “On Any Given Day in Spring” and “Light Balances” at Matthew Marks in New York. 

Listening to the River is a prime example of a book that is ostensibly “boring.” Nothing very much really happens. And yet everything happens. Because the pictures don’t offer up easy surface pleasures, the viewer must actively participate in the making of meaning within the book; when that happens, it’s no longer “about” rivers and mountains and trees and houses, it’s about the viewer. It’s all interior. Which is a weird place to be, and hard to convey properly: although I find many of the photographs staggeringly beautiful, there are no “greatest hits” here. If I had just ten minutes to acquaint someone with Adams, I would probably go to What We Bought or The New West to explain the basic aesthetic and lodge the pictures in the mind. Listening requires a longer and more involved process, and a certain commitment from the viewer. Like football matches and scoreless baseball games. 

I guess I can sort of understand why the entirety of that Cardinals game didn’t excite everyone, but I would argue that those folks haven’t entirely embraced the language of baseball. And while many Americans gamely supported our World Cup team, I wonder if many of them really got into the international game itself. Which, of course, is totally cool. I don’t have the vocabulary to appreciate hockey or modern dance or blues music. Nobody can love everything.

The German goal in the World Cup final, deep in the overtime, was a thrill precisely because of the “boring” ebb and flow of the 113 preceding minutes, with their attendant emotional and physical exhaustion. (And also because it wasn’t all that flashy, but rather an exquisite example of basic ball control from the cross to the chest stop and the shot.) The Cardinals game was memorable not only because my team won, but because the losing team was the “better” one all night long, even if continually frustrated in scoring. That ninth-inning home run was all the more poignant for both teams because of the hours of opportunities and setbacks that had set it up. 

Being boring means trusting the audience absolutely. I’ve heard Susan Lipper use the phrase “trust in the viewer” a few times in relation to the effects of certain kinds of photographs. I see that calm confidence in her demanding and wonderful book trip, which makes her better-known Grapevine seem downright action-packed. More recently, her “Off Route 80” project pushes the concept even further. 

Like Adams and Lipper, the Cards game and the Germany-Argentina match required the viewer to actively participate in the drama. And they both were, to my mind, supremely dramatic, despite a lack of material for the highlight reel. They both broke your heart a little, for the winners and losers alike, because they trusted you to actively make the event whole. 

Now of course a photobook isn’t going to have winners and losers, but it is a drama, and one that can be effective – like Listening to the River or trip – without a highlight reel. It’s the entirety of the thing – all the “boring” stuff that provides the “eventful” stuff (which stuff may be entirely within the viewer) with context, that makes it meaningful.