Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Boredom, Mother of Invention

When my kids sigh and exclaim “mom, I’m bored,” I clap my hands and respond, “Yipee! So what are you going to do about it?” And I return to whatever it was I was doing; probably something exciting, like folding laundry or cleaning out the cat box.

They want me to find something to entertain them, but I won’t do it. It is up to them. Just like it was up to me, when I was their age.

Long before I was married with children, I began seeing middle school kids with Palm Pilots and Blackberries. I wondered what kids would need those for. Finally, someone told me what it was all about. “Their parents have overscheduled them. These kids have so many activities, they have to keep track of them electronically, and sync them with the family calendar.” I was shocked. 

When we got married, I made my husband promise that we would not over-schedule ourselves and make our child carry a Palm Pilot. I'm sure he thought I was getting ahead of myself. And I was. But not by too far. 

Now, twins and ten years later, I am still shocked, even though we have moved on to Smart Phones and the iPhone and Droids that seem poised to evolve into yet more complex items. Just for the sake of example: does it make sense that some of us have as many as four different contact numbers and/or addresses? That means we have to wade through double, triple, quadruple the messages when people try to get in touch. 

I have a cellular phone, but I don’t text. I had a Palm Pilot, but gave it away years ago, and returned to having a calendar I can write in with a pencil. I have a laptop, but not the latest model or operating system or applications.

You must be thinking I am a Luddite.

Not so, not so. No, not at all. 

I think all this technology is fabulous and grand and totally gizmotic! --(I am totally looking forward to getting my very own Dick Tracy HoloTeleporTextoGraph wristwatch, as soon as they roll off the assembly line!)-- I just don’t happen to think we need to be tied to it every minute of the day and much of the night. I don’t believe that we are required to have every moment of our day filled with some sort of electronic transaction in order to feel useful and productive. In fact, I believe we are making ourselves sick with the constant influx of messages that require response. This is not productivity, people, this is overwhelm, leading to a short-circuit.

I won't even go into the shoot-em-up video games and the vapid television content, running along the lines of Beady Eye for the Con GuyTrailer Court Cookery,America's Got TrashTouched by a Zombie, Project Informercial and CSI Bell, California. My husband and I don't want to watch this junk, and we sure as heck don't want our kids watching it either. Whether it is television, video games or email, screen time sucks at you with constantly programmed stimulation and message intervention until your mind is not free to roam. Hours go by, empty of you and your thoughts.

Anna Quindlen wrote a lovely essay for Newsweek in 2002. She, too, had noticed all the children with afternoons full of scheduled and structured time, being chauffeured around by harried and resentful parents, and it disturbed her, as well. Reflecting on her own childhood, she said, 
How boring it was. Of course, it was the making of me, as a human being and a writer. Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity.
In a 2005 keynote speech about hyper-parenting and creativity, Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D. said, 
Boredom can stimulate kids to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture, or invent a new game. It is diminishing free play’s importance and eliminating time to reflect that damage imagination because they do not treat as precious children’s natural joy in discovering.
I propose that what is good for kids is probably also at least equally good for adults. 

I have seen my husband sit at the computer, grinding away at a problem related to what he is working on, getting more and more keyed up and farther, it seems, from a solution. If I drag him away to play with the twins, he grumbles, but always finds the solution while he is away from the computer. Why? Because he let go long enough to think outside the boundaries he had set up for the solution—that is creativity. And it was not found sitting at the computer, it was found while flying kites with the kids. He was not bored by the kite flying, but it was time frivolously spent.

Author Aimee Bender spends two hours a day working at boredom, just sitting around, waiting for some odd thought to pass through her mind. 
I feel like sitting through boredom is a major piece of being a writer. There's this intense restlessness that comes up when bored. I have this interest in skewed storytelling, so it makes sense that the ideas would sometimes show up in these strange ways.
Susan Sontag observed in an essay: 
Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.
So, here’s an idea for all of us, whether we are little kids or hyper-connected big kids:

Take some time to turn off, tune out, and twiddle those thumbs! Get out, get restless, go fly a kite--and see what happens!


Keane, Erin., 10/26/2010. Acclaimed writer Aimee Bender's creative process begins with boredom.
Quindlen, Anna. Newsweek; 5/13/2002, Vol. 139 Issue 19, p76:  Doing Nothing is Something.
Rosenfeld, Alan. Hyper-Parenting the Over-Scheduled Child, keynote address for the Association of Children’s Museums, Indianapolis, Indiana. April 30, 2005.
Sontag, Susan. On PhotographyAmerica, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly." Penguin, 1977. 

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