The Utility of Boredom by Andrew Forbes. This time, Phil picks a love letter written for the sport of baseball. Jay reads it and deftly avoids any hackneyed baseball expressions in his review. Listen in as metaphors are mixed and names are dropped. Will enough free throws result in a touch down in the third period of this podcast?
JAY [00:00:01] This book is a love story. It's a love letter. It's a poem written to his paramour, which is spaceball.
PHIL [00:00:20] Welcome to Dog-eared and Cracked, the podcast, where we each recommend a book to the other and then play Monday morning quarterback.
[00:00:27] This week we're discussing The Utility of Boredom by Andrew Forbes. Now, this is our first non-fiction book, and it's essays about baseball. And before we get to them, Jay, why don't you just tell us a bit about the book. So what have you got about Andrew Forbes?
JAY [00:00:47] Well, Phil, The Utility of Boredom is ostensibly about baseball, or rather, the impression and feelings that the author, Andrew Forbes, who incidentally, was born in Ottawa -- I guess he lives in Peterboroughnow, Ontario -- his experiences from his enjoyment of the sport as a spectator, not a player. And it's a series of essays ranging from his experience in selling a C.D. to a player, from sitting in the stands watching a game involving his family, and just the highs and lows of following the sport that he loves.
[00:01:29] Andrew Forbes has written film and music criticism. He's done liner notes, sports columns and some short fiction. He's been nominated for the JourneyPrize and appeared in a large number of publications.
PHIL [00:01:41] I'm surprised, I realise that I've never asked you this, but do you actually like baseball? Because I realised as I was reading through the book also that, you know, it's not only about baseball, but it also, you know, it says right up front that one of baseball's essential characteristics is that it's boring sometimes. And I thought, you know, like I sometimes listen to three games a day during the summer when baseball is being played. It's kind of like a -- it can be a kind of constant in my life. And I actually appreciate that sort of aspect. That it's not exciting all the time. But that's me. So Jay. Do you actually like baseball? Is it something you have any interest in?
JAY [00:02:23] I'm not surprised you actually recommended it to me because I do know that you have a love of baseball yourself. So it's something that I've really always struggled to enjoy. It's a sport that I've always been interested in understanding why it's so exciting. It's a sport which I find is full of the most completely -- full of namedropping. It seems like it's a sport of statistics. And it's something that arguably, though, where I'm struggling a little bit with this, is that I don't think that the author has really made any case that baseball is boring.
[00:03:02] In fact, I think it's kind of the opposite, because when he writes his essays, you're really struck by his excitement and his engagement in that sport. So on the one hand, he talks about, and this is the essay "On the Utility of Boredom" and he's talking about baseball in particular, and he's talking about this idea that it forces -- similar to what you had said. But he says it's an exercise in concentration and a chance to train the brain, to ignore the echoes of other forms of entertainment or offering easier enticements. But he never really explains the value of doing so. And then he just kind of contradicts himself by saying that awareness of possibilities, which I assumed he means things like games that can be won or lost, players that can be traded, that it tempers the dullness. But again, it doesn't really address the utility of voluntary adopting a state of boredom.
[00:04:02] So when you feel when you say that you find the sport boring. I'm assuming that means in terms of its duration, in terms of not a lot of action happens?
PHIL [00:04:14] Well, you know, I think when people say baseball is boring, I don't agree that it is. But I thought it was interesting that, you know, his take is you've got nine innings, you've got 162 games. It would be ridiculous to expect to maintain a level of excitement that whole time. And that I think it's kind of latent in -- like with every pitch, you don't know what's going to happen next. So. In one of these essays, the one where he talks about the Toronto Blue Jays when they go in 2015 to the American League Championship Series, he talks about that little throw where Russell Martin is throwing the ball back to the pitcher, a completely routine thing that he has done thousands and thousands of times in his career. And this time, it bounces off the batter's bat and just lays there and the runner comes running home.
[00:05:11] And I think the umpire had said after, the home plate umpire, that in something like 4,000 games in his life, you know, amateur and professional career, he had never seen anything like this. So I think it's that seeming boredom with those moments that just come out of nowhere sometimes, right?
[00:05:31] It comes up again in the one on Ricky Romero. How you could, you could -- and a couple of times, actually -- that you can have it, you can be at the top of your game, you're in this one on one battle with the hitter. And then sometimes the pitchers will just lose it. And they never get it back. And nobody ever figures out why.
JAY [00:05:48] One of the difficulties I had with the book was the name references, the namedropping. Now, you had mentioned "The Ballad of Ricky Romero," which was one of the essays. This, I believe was a player who never succeeded like he should have. And I would, I would suggest that maybe that essay should never have been written as well.
[00:06:15] I'll quote Andrew Forbes himself on this. This is his quote from the book: "There is no solid moral purchase defined on the matter of how athletes are disposed of once they're no longer needed. But the hard fact is that there's nothing particularly notable about Romero's story." I read that section, then really scratched my head trying to understand: Why would he write an entire essay about it?
PHIL [00:06:40] You said something that I think is really interesting and that points out, for me, a blind spot. So, you know, when when I read this book, I recognise a lot of those names, right? So when he talked about Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, you know, I know Yasiel Puig's story, and it's amazing. And I actually, you know, I stopped reading at one point, got out my phone and looked up his throw from right field from Puig's first game, because I've seen lots of amazing throws by him, but I hadn't seen that one. And with Romero. So, you know, as someone who's followed the Blue Jays, Romero was this big mystery because he was brilliant. And they signed him to this big contract and then he just completely fell apart and never got it back and nobody could ever figure out why. And that was it. He was done. And he seemed like a nice guy and everyone was rooting for him. And s, I think it's interesting, like when he says that there's -- his story is unremarkable,I read that as in contrast to, like we all know what happened to Ricky Romero, but in fact that kind of thing happens all the time. But if you don't have the "we all know what happened to Ricky Romero" background, then it doesn't make any sense. Right?
JAY [00:07:59] Yeah, it doesn't. It was a difficult to read, actually. I mean, I get where he's going with it. But at the end I felt like the conclusion was it was just it's all random.
PHIL [00:08:13] I mean, I think it kind of gets to one of my questions, which is, is is the book actually about baseball? Right? You know, I wondered, yeah, what you thought about it, like is it about something else wrapped up in in baseball essays?
JAY [00:08:30] I don't know. I don't have a very good answer for your question. I mean, it's, to me, it's a book about baseball. \There's nothing -- there's no deep hidden meetings. He tries to create and look for metaphors and tries to understand and kind of tries to relate it to things in life. And it's just -- it's thin. It's very thin in terms of an argument. He does do a great job of explaining or describing feelings. And so some of the feelings he talks about, about watching a team make it all the way to the to the playoffs and then losing out in the finals and the desolation and the silence and the feeling of people walking out of the bar, walking out of the restaurants where they were watching the game, and that kind of -- capturing that was just done, done perfectly well.
PHIL [00:09:32] Because to me, it seemed like a lot of it was about loss and ageing and adjusting your expectations. And I kind of was thinking about that when you were saying earlier, the thing about how, you know, you have these long stretches where nothing happens. And then some potential for something and I thought that's kind of like life is sometimes right. Every day is the same. And then something happens or might happen. So it's yeah, I was interested because I thought that was one of the -- I thought that was a fairly strong aspect of it for me, but not one that was there for you.
JAY [00:10:15] I like to quote myself that 80 percent of life is boring, but it's the 20 percent that keeps us coming back. Just looking at a quote here and I'm going to quote this, because I think this kind of sums it up. It says, "But it's also true that we're all Felix [Hernandez], in a sense, if less wealthy and talented. We all carry with us a motley assortment of old decisions and the proof thereof. They are written on us sometimes in places we can't conceal. We change too and adapt. But we continue to live with what we've inscribed on ourselves and on the world. We are marked by youth, but pulling ever away from it. Watching it recede behind us".
[00:11:11] I like that quote, because it's really saying that we are kind of the sum of the decisions that we've made. We are the product of everything that has kind of happened to us. And if there was a theme that would be one, I would suggest that might be an additional theme to this book, because that does come up. The nice part about his essays is that they jump back and forth in time. And it's interesting to see how this sport has just continued with him from the time he was a kid to now to being an adult.
PHIL [00:11:45] You know, that that quote that you read kind of dovetails with one that I pulled that I noticed, which was sort of, almost like the mirror image of it, and it's in the essay called "Marco Scutaro Hits a Foul Ball," which I liked as a title, because it's an absolutely routine thing that someone would hit a foul ball. But it's not routine for him because he catches it. Right? And so he describes being at the ballpark. He's 22. He's there with his girlfriend, who he later marries. He';s dropped out of Carleton. And he says that he's "completed a tour of the service industry, but written precious little, despite the fact that writing is my oft-stated goal. And watched the steady parade of friends move away. I know nothing. My goals are vague, my ambitions ill-defined. At this moment, my certainties are few. But one of them is that the woman sitting beside me will save me from aimlessness and drift. You watch, she'll believe in me, despite scant evidence to support her hunch. She'll convince me to buy a house in the country, marry me, bear our children. She'll carry me through. Tonight, she humours me sitting in a cold, nearly abandoned ballpark, watching a meaningless minor league game. Her head and hands wrapped tight her but surely as frozen as mine. She keeps score with a dull pencil. She cheers when appropriate. It's simply another night spent away from our apartment. We could just as easily be in a pub or a restaurant or at a friend's place watching a movie. We are young and childless and we have time to kill."
JAY [00:13:22] So, that that quote -- I remember that. I remember that that description. It would be interesting that this woman who became his wife, it would be interesting if she did her own little essay as well, because I'm surprised that... I guess they met through their mutual love of baseball.
[00:13:42] What did you come away from that quote? It like did it connect with you on a personal basis?
PHIL [00:13:48] Yeah. Yeah, it did, because I had many, you know, for many years been the person who's done little writing, despite the oft-stated goal of being a writer and I do remember being that age and having pretty much that same feeling. Although by 22, we were already married.
[00:14:19] And I just thought it was like a nice counterpoint to a lot of the rest of the book, which seemed to be about not about like, oh, your dreams are gone, but just the normalness of life, you know, and and how some of it seemed to mirror baseball.
[00:14:36] And I one thing I'm curious about is, were there any essays that you actually enjoyed that stood out for you?
JAY [00:14:45] There were a couple and I don't recall the names. I believe one was called Summer and it was talking about, again, this idea of defining. Defining the seasons, using them. Kind of comparing the seasons and his love for baseball. And it was -- there's an interesting passage in there about how he likes the idea, the seasonality of the sport, this kind of regrowth, rebirth in the spring, and how he kind of sets his his his enjoyment of life by it. And it's an interesting chapter.
[00:15:30] I mean, the book itself, I mean, admittedly, it wasn't it wasn't my favourite book. And we'll get to the scoring in a bit, but there were some chapters there that were very descriptive. But I felt like what I wanted from the book was the ability to at least to learn how to -- at least to gain more insight into why people love the sport. And all I got was really a description of someone talking about how much he loves the sport without actually really explaining why. And maybe that's my fault.
[00:16:03] And reading it, I didn't understand what he was trying to say. But. I kind of felt like there is -- the name-dropping was driving me kind of crazy for a bit.
PHIL [00:16:17] So you've mentioned a couple of times. So what's the what's the deal with the namedropping?
JAY [00:16:21] There's -- so this is an interesting question, because if you didn't catch that, that is probably a function of that you know, these people. Right? So if you know the players, you know the teams, you know the positions and you know the actual references that he's making, it's an easier book to read. If you're describing a play, for example, and you start referring to players, then I have to read far more, far more closely to understand exactly how that play is working out, because I don't know who's playing for who. And there was a little bit of, I noticed there's a lot of -- my limited experience, that this is a sport that, and even I notice you reference a few players' experiences and things like that -- so it's a sport where people just, they drop names. And maybe all sports are like that, I don't know. But I found the book kind of really difficult to kind of get through. In fact there's one chapter that's just complete with statistics basically about who went where and when they came back and what where they went after that. And it's kind of his reaction to that.
[00:17:34] So did I have some favourite chapters? There are probably a couple that were that were good and probably because, you know, the book in all is fairly even. There are a couple of choppy essays that were really not providing any point. There was -- it wasn't clear what point he was trying to make. I think he was just caught up in his rapturous love for the game and he was just describing how great something was.
[00:18:04] That's fine. But as a reader, it's it's difficult to kind of get that consistency.
PHIL [00:18:11] I am a believer in, you know, making things accessible and having as many people as possible enjoy them, right? And so it it kind of points to my not... my, maybe my bias or my inability to see beyond that. So because that aspect of it that you're describing hadn't really occurred to me, and I couldn't take myself out of myself and I guess I wasn't able to imagine what it would be like to read it if you didn't know any of those names.
JAY [00:18:47] Yeah, there's, like there's popular cultural popular culture references. And then there's sports references. And if you don't understand the sports references, they're challenging.
PHIL [00:18:58] And so on our rating scale of one to five where five means your preordering, Andrew Forbes's next book and maybe his entire back catalogue. And one means you'd rather listen to the collected works of Hall and Oates, where does the utility of boredom come in?
JAY [00:19:20] Well, I, I have to rate this at two, and I apologise to Mr. Forbes, to you and to all baseball enthusiasts out there.
[00:19:33] I thought for a book that's 150 pages, it was probably about 160 pages too long.
[00:19:43] Well, how would you have written? How would you rate it?
PHIL [00:19:47] Oh, I like you know, I liked it a lot. I'd probably give it a. Three and a half or, I'm not sure, a 3.75.
JAY [00:19:59] Well, how would you change it? Like, I know you don't like to play Monday morning quarterback on this, but if you if he had had the ability, if he had come to you first and said, how would you change this book? Is there anything I can change...you know, I'd really be grateful if you'd let me know. In fact, if he had said to I will give you a thousand dollars for every change that you make. How would you have changed the book?
PHIL [00:20:27] I did find, I think I would have suggested, I think I would have suggested expanding some of the essays and dropping some of the shorter ones, which are not much more than just an observation. There are a few that were just, you know, they felt like listening to the deep cuts on a vinyl record or something. And we're getting through, like, songs two and three on side V before they tried to finish strong. So I think some of those, I mean, the essay is a, it's a difficult format, but I think. I think I would have maybe pushed him to either go a little deeper with some of those short ones or expand some of the longer ones. And listening to you, maybe what I would have -- well, I don't know. I mean, I suspect that this book was always going to be for baseball fans. So I don't know if making it more accessible would have helped his sales. Or not, because, you know, you look at that cover. It's like an old timey -- it's a lot like the book itself. It's a kind of romanticised view of baseball.
JAY [00:21:35] Right. Yeah, that's a great way to put it. It's a romanticised view. Yeah.
PHIL [00:21:40] And he does get into the undersides, I mean, he talks about a fan being beaten up and he talks about misogyny and -- but it is very still a very romantic view of the game.
JAY [00:21:52] It is, and I guess in fairness, I was looking and I I actually agree with you now that I don't think -- it's a book for baseball fans. So I don't, while I selfishly would have preferred or liked if he had put a little more descriptive instructional notation in there on what he's talking about, that would have been kind of, just annoying for the baseball fan.
[00:22:22] The one thing, though, I think in terms of, maybe where maybe we're being too hard on Forbes, but this this idea of continuity of theme. He doesn't really explain -- to me again, I think he fell short on on his explanation of why baseball is borings and yet there's utility in that.
[00:22:47] So I don't know, I'm going to stick with my two, you know, and I I do that because I believe it's well-written for the most part. It's just it just I was the wrong audience, and I think that's part of what we're trying to achieve with this podcast is just really get each other out of our comfort zones.
PHIL [00:23:05] I was going to say now I feel kind of slightly bad for it because I thought you would pull out some more of the like, you know, ull up more of the theme kind of stuff. But I think I didn't realise that, you know, when you laughed and said it really is about baseball
JAY [00:23:22] Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
PHIL [00:23:28] I think I was thinking baseball as a metaphor for... But actually you're right, I think. That actually really, that there are those elements, but it really is about baseball and his and his love of baseball.
JAY [00:23:39] Yeah. I mean, he does. In fairness, he does, he does try and draw on parts of his life and relate aspects of baseball to the life of an individual, whether it be him or his wife, your child or or you or I. And I respect that. I like what he's trying to do and he's trying to draw comparisons.
[00:23:59] And your quote -- earlier quote about the batters waiting in line, so to speak, and the fact that, you know, these lucky hits become even more unlikely as time goes on, and I like how he's really trying to compare that to to life and to how we kind of grow and we live our lives.
[00:24:23] And ultimately, what that what ends up becoming of those.
PHIL [00:24:28] All right, well, I think we have exhausted The Utility of Boredom.
JAY [00:24:32] I think. I think. I think. I think so. It's time to retire it to the shelf. I'm happy you recommended it. I'm happy to read it. Not something that is going to have a lasting impression on me, though, regrettably.
PHIL [00:24:49] OK. Well, we'll see what kind of lasting impression The Conquest of Happiness has.
JAY [00:24:56] Well, that one is a page-turner, as you know, and I believe that next podcast will be very exciting.