Three Cheers for Boredom by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“I’m bored.”

That’s a phrase that no parent cares to hear from her child. That’s a phrase that provokes my ire.

Avoiding boredom is big business. No more sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic with only the radio to take the edge off the tedium. If you’re not moving, you can take out your smart phone and answer your e-mail—assuming that you’re a passenger. Or you can make a call on your cell phone on your Bluetooth if you are the driver to wile away the time.

I recently upgraded to an iPhone, reducing my boredom to “microboredom”— a term that one cell phone maker has coined to describe those dwindling moments when we have absolutely nothing to do. I’m not the best role model when it comes to microboredom. But I like to think that I’m not so much bored as I am obsessive, another syndrome served by mobile technology. I sit in the carpool line reading e-mail and downloading the news, while listening to music from my iPod wafting from the car stereo.

Anna got her microboredom under control years ago when we bought her a video iPod for her Bat Mitzvah. She giddily downloaded everything from movies to episodes of her favorite television shows. The video iPod became a sleeping aid. I should probably be more concerned about this than I am. But as a life-long insomniac, I’m grateful that Anna found something relatively harmless and drug-free to help her fall asleep.

When I was a kid whining about how bored I was, my father would look at me over the thick book he was reading and tell me to read. I’d stomp out of the room with my AM transistor radio and find a quiet place to listen to Top 40 pop. But when that got boring, I got desperate and took his suggestion. Sigh. Yawn. And then something happened. Twenty pages in and I was in a relationship with characters. Plots engaged me. Language fascinated me to the point that I tried to emulate the prose of my favorite writers.

A few years ago a skulking Adam said there was nothing to do in a house where there are four computers, two DVD players and not one, but two devices on which to play videogames. He picked up a Gameboy, but that did nothing for his malaise. My suggestions sounded desperate. What about playing Guitar Hero? Let’s play Text Twist—an on-line game that adds an unprecedented level of anxiety to a simple word scramble.

Nothing took. I wondered what would happen if he was disconnected from the computer, the television, and other forms of technology. At first he acted like a caged animal until I told him to go outside and ride his scooter up and down the driveway.

“For how long?” he mumbled.

“A hundred times,” I said.

“You’re kidding, Mom. That’s as boring as counting sheep.”

“Don’t fall asleep on your Razor,” I said.

It turns out that a bit of fresh air is exactly what my boy needed. He lost count of how many times he went up and down the driveway. He ran into the house rosy cheeked and hungry. Fresh air—the time-honored elixir for boredom.

Boredom is a relatively new word in the English language. Charles Dickens is credited as the first writer to use it. The word appears in a very long convoluted novel called “Bleak House.” I had to read it my sophomore year of college and I must confess I didn’t finish it. It was boring.

But think about what would have happened if Marcel Proust had not taken a maddeningly, boring amount of time to dunk his madeleine cookie in a cup of tea? We might have a completely different paradigm for the interplay between memory and imagination. And what about philosophy? There would be no existentialism without a substantial dose of boredom.

Researchers who study boredom have found that watching paint dry sparks creativity, imagination and introspection. Young children naturally tolerate boredom and eventually overcome it by simply playing . Have you ever seen a bored toddler? Everything is wondrous to him. His world is full of possibilities all day, every day. Young children see options even in the most mundane of surroundings, the most basic of toys. My children often preferred the box to the toy that came in it.

As children get older, boredom can be menacing. In school it can indicate a lack of understanding or the inverse—a lack of meaningful challenges in the classroom.

Allowing our kids to confront and overcome boredom is an important life lesson. Maybe we should start by having our kids regularly disconnect from television, computer games, or cell phones. I recently read that the amount of time for an old habit to dissipate and a new one to take root is three weeks. My father must have intuited that. He never gave up on me until I enjoyed reading books as thick as the ones he read.



In Defense of Algebra and Other Difficult Subjects by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Last week a political science professor named Andrew Hacker published an article in the New York Times: “Is Algebra Necessary?” The title alone triggered my math phobia. Math is right up there with my fear of swimming. (More on my aquaphobia another time.)

In my unscientific poll, my math anxiety is pretty typical for a woman my age. The thought of a quadratic equation—whatever that is—sends me into a panic. It’s tempting to agree with Hacker to skip the whole ordeal and just concentrate on the subjects I’m good at.

I don’t doubt Hacker’s statistics that six million high school students and two million college freshmen are suffering under the weight of solving a simple equation like 5x+2 = 3x+10. But the truth is a high school graduate should be able to come up with four as the answer. I almost believed Hacker’s argument when he asserted that, “making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower.  I say this as a wrier and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from  a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.”

But then I realized that he is, in fact, asking students to sidestep subjects that are difficult for them. Isn’t the point of being a student to challenge oneself? I ought to know. Writers are perpetual students. There’s no way around the fact that you have to put in the hours researching, writing and rewriting. Having said all of this, I’ve never met a writer who didn’t think writing was the hardest undertaking in the world. I had a teacher who told me that he psyched himself in front of the blank computer screen with these words: Down, Down, In.

To make it to the desk is the first of many small victories. Then it’s time to confront the equation that has to be solved, the Latin paragraph that has to be translated, the essay to say what you intend to communicate. These intellectual conundrums don’t simply loom large, they haunt one. You have to do this work because it matters. Hacker, on the other hand, reinforces the ultimate phobic behavior in education: avoidance.

Down, down, in. That’s how you’ll find your subject, gather your emotional strength, and cultivate your creativity. Lightning bolt inspiration is as rare as getting struck by actual lightning.

I had a geometry teacher who was downright abusive. She assigned an open-ended art project that was supposed to incorporate principles of geometry. For the record, I am totally opposed to art projects after nursery school. My geometry project was a dismal failure. I cut out circles, squares and other shapes and tried to calculate the areas. She took me down in front of the whole class, pointing out I hadn’t done the project at all. She offered no guidance on how I might fix my project. Just withering criticism. Consequently, I break out into hives when I hear the word geometry.

But in my gut, I know that math is important in our increasingly tech-savvy world. I’ve made sure that my daughter knows that she can solve a quadratic equation as well as any boy in her class. Hacker points out that only 9% of men and 4% of women score over 700 on the math portion of the SAT. I’m not worried about that statistic’s discrepancy between girls and boys. I’m astounded by our country’s math illiteracy.

Math students, particularly girls, need both mentors and teachers to excel in the subject. In an article recently published in The American Scholar by Paula Marantz Cohen, an English professor, she points out the subtle but crucial differences between mentors and teachers. “A teacher,” she writes, “has greater knowledge than a student; a mentor has greater perspective.” Marantz Cohen is talking about the editor-writer relationship, but I think a similar relationship is very beneficial for girls in math. A teacher sits down and shows a student how to solve a quadratic equation. A mentor clears away the cobwebs of doubt for a student so that the learning can begin in earnest.

In our house Ken and I take on the roles of teacher and mentor respectively. As mentor, I try to expand my reach beyond that of cheerleader. After I read Hacker’s essay, I was spurred on to demystify algebra and asked Ken to teach me how to prove the quadratic equation Hacker offered in his piece: (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)².

“Show me how to do this for our daughter,” I said to my husband as I broke out in a cold sweat.

“She knows how to prove this equation.”

“Please,” I begged.

He proceeded to teach me a strategy called FOIL to tackle the equation. As soon as Anna heard the word in her room she called out incredulously,  “Are you doing algebra?” And then she came in and showed me how to solve the problem.

The right attitude, coupled with competent teaching, means that learning algebra doesn’t have to be a Sisyphean undertaking. Even for me.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This is an excerpt from an essay published on the New York Times Motherlode Blog in September of 2010

Judy Bolton-Fasman

I’ve spent a lot of time in front of a blank computer screen fantasizing about having more time to devote to my book. I’d heard of mother writers who act on their fantasies and take up residencies in various artists’ colonies where weeks can run into a month or two.

I long ago resigned myself to deferring my vision until my youngest went off to college. Six years. I could deal with that. I’d be old enough to belong to AARP, but young enough not to collect Social Security.

I didn’t end up waiting six years. One of my favorite authors was slated to be the writer in residence at an artist’s colony in Florida. The timing couldn’t have been more inconvenient for me. If my application was accepted, I’d be gone for half of May and the first week in June. I was deeply conflicted, but not conflicted enough to keep me from applying to spend three weeks and travel 1,260 miles away from my children.

I was accepted to the residency.

To read the rest of the article please clink on the link below:

The Care and Nourishment of a Parent by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The first thing to go was my father’s inimitable printing.

His letters—straight and precise—were self-portraits of sturdiness and discipline. I associated Dad with the single initial that grounded his name—K, as in K. Harold Bolton.

The K stood for Kenneth—a name he never used, a phantom name. Unlike its counterpart C, K is like the father of my childhood—unambiguously hard, unyielding to e or i. K— ramrod straight on one side—was like Dad’s perfect posture making it a letter to lean on, a letter from which to fly the flag that Dad revered. In Dad’s stately block printing K was declarative—shorthand for the unsolved mystery of why he preferred to be called Harold instead of Ken. And then one day K dissolved on the page as he tried to sign his tax return.

There is a Spanish saying that when a parent gives to the child, both the parent and the child laugh. But when the child gives to the parent, both the parent and the child cry. It’s strange and disorienting to watch our parents walk slower, remember less, pepper a conversation with non-sequiturs.

My Dad died ten years ago and I can hardly remember the shrunken old man to whom I fed strained carrots. Instead, in my mind’s eye he is stocky and vital and strong. Against his better judgment, he taught me to drive in the winter. “No one learns to drive in January,” he sighed as he told me to put the car in reverse to get out of a snow bank. Fifteen years later a policeman pulled him over for weaving in and out of lanes. The officer called that same night and said how sorry he was that he had to revoke Dad’s license.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Be Nice To Your Children—They Choose Your Nursing Home.” I was horrified. Caring for our parents with grace and humility, without agenda, is one of the most crucial and moral lessons we impart to our children. Acquiring a new level of patience and love and fortitude is critical to helping a parent grow old in peace and security. It is also one of the most challenging aspects of trying to honor a father and a mother. Resisting the notion that one is parenting a parent—no matter how dependent a parent becomes that person is still the mother or the father—requires an iron-willed patience that insists on nothing less than dignity and respect at all times.

Over the years I have watched family and friends accompany a parent to chemotherapy sessions, stock a mother’s refrigerator each week, balance her checkbook at the end of the month or closely supervise health care aides for a father with a broken ankle. It’s the same skills they have acquired and honed as they bring up their own children. It’s the same admirable behavior that they learned from their own parents.

The day my father could no longer sign his name—the day his signature crumbled before my eyes—was the day he was trapped in his body and his existence curtailed to just a couple of rooms in his house. During the decade that he was ill my mother built a life that depended on the devotion of caregivers, the kindness of family and friends, and more often than not, favors from strangers. And when she could not keep up with Dad’s overwhelming needs the first things she set aside were her own health and sanity. During those years my mother and I had our disagreements over my father’s care, the medications he should or shouldn’t be taking. We had our difficult moments over whether he should go to a nursing home.

As my young children grew more aware of my father’s illness, they saw that I was helpless, frustrated, and angry. I was the one who was vulnerable as I tried to spoon food into my father’s mouth. It was my voice that was shaky when I read books to him. I was the one who looked clumsy as I tried to prop him up in bed. By watching me trying to care for my father, my children and I gradually realized that this kind of encompassing help included loving him anew as my father—a grown man who only appeared as a helpless child.

Neither Dad nor I imagined such a sad, drawn out ending to his life, but I buck against the idea that during that time he was anyone but my father.  And so in his memory I choose to focus on things like the precise checkbook he kept or the glitzy Valentine’s Day cards that he unfailingly sent me every year and signed in red ink—“With all my love, Daddy.”





For the Sake of Jewish Continuity by Judy Bolton-Fasman

We are Jews. However, between Ken and me we are occasional temple going, theoretically God-fearing, skeptical, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Ladino, Yiddish, kosher non-kosher eating Jews. And at the end of the day we transcend our internal conflicts, our spiritual doubts to do our small part for Jewish continuity.

I thought even more about the religious legacy we are handing down to Anna and Adam after I heard from a friend who is the daughter of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. She is writing a book about bringing up her children to identify as both Jews and Christians. She was brought up in the Reform movement and remembers her Bat Mitzvah as important and affirming to her identity as a Jew. Then in college she dated a Jewish man who told her their relationship had no future because her mother was not Jewish According to halacha or traditional Jewish law she was not a Jew. She was shocked. And then she was angry. I can’t help but thinking that the Jewish establishment drove her to find another way that sacrifices Jewish continuity.

Through the years I have  respected my friend’s intelligence and insights even as they moved further away from mine. A couple of years ago I sent her my column about The Conservative movement’s decision to accept gay and lesbian Jews as clergy and married couples. She wrote back urging me to read my essay through the eyes of a “’halachically non-Jewish’ Jew. We always find it quite amazing that many Jews will accept homosexual marriage (which of course they should) but not a marriage between a Jew and non-Jew, or an interfaith child.”

Her words moved me to seek a thoughtful, principled answer to her quandary. After culling the wisdom of rabbis, teachers and community leaders, I have concluded that the two issues—accepting gay and lesbian unions between two Jews and the marriage of a Jew and non-Jew—are completely unrelated. The first is in line with Jewish continuity; the other is not. The chances are greater that the children of two Jewish parents—gay or straight—will be raised as Jews. According to the National Jewish Population Survey “nearly all children (96%) in households with two Jewish spouses are being raised Jewish, compared to a third (33%) of the children in households with one non-Jewish spouse.”

The question of determining Jewish identity through matrilineal or patrilineal descent is a separate issue that is uniquely addressed within Judaism’s movements. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews recognize the child of either Jewish parent as Jews. Conservative and Orthodox Jews are unwavering in their conviction that only the mother determines the religious identity of a child. I am a Conservative Jew who is thrilled to see the child of one Jewish parent—mother or father—identify as a Jew.

Still, it is crucial for me to walk step by step through the reasoning that has shaped Conservative Judaism’s views on interfaith marriage in order to understand and ultimately support a tenet that at first glance seemed unsympathetic to me. I remember feeling uneasy when we filled out Anna’s application to Solomon Schechter Day School. There in the fine print was the caveat that applicants must be the children of Jewish mothers or be converted in keeping with the standards of the Conservative movement. I was used to reading fine print proclaiming that an applicant would not be denied admission or employment on the basis of religion, gender or sexual orientation. I was at a loss. Was this prejudice or faith?

It all boils down to answering that familiar and uncomfortable question—Is it good for the Jews? The Leadership Council on Conservative Judaism, an umbrella organization that includes the Jewish Theological Seminary and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, bluntly asserts “the marriage between a Jew and non-Jew is not a celebration for the Jewish community. We therefore reach out to the couple with the hope that the non- Jewish partner will move closer to Judaism and ultimately choose to convert. …We want to encourage the Jewish partner to maintain his/her Jewish identity, and raise their children as Jews.”

Jewish outreach or keruv to interfaith families—whether it is through Web sites like or synagogue programs—unequivocally advocates for interfaith families to raise their children as Jews. My friend’s children are not being strictly raised as Jews. Her ecumenical approach works for her family, but sadly I have to acknowledge that raising them in two religions is not in the interest of klal yisrael—the Jewish community. Our diverging views on interfaith issues have created a divide between us that I pray will someday be bridged.

College Tripper

On the eve of Anna’s departure for college, I’m running the piece on last year’s ubiquitous college tour.

Six days. Seven schools. Three colds and one case of bronchitis later (hello bronchitis, my old friend), we are through with college touring. Okay, maybe not through, but finished with the grand sweep. In keeping with a promise I made to my children to guard their privacy when I started writing this column, I’ll just say we drove a total of 1200 miles in Anywhere, USA. And yes, we schlepped Adam along in the hope that he won’t want to embark on a similarly exhausting itinerary.

If you take away only one piece of advice from this column let it be the following: do NOT, no matter how tempting it is, immediately ask your college applicant what she thought of the school. I made the egregious mistake of pointing out that early decision candidates fared statistically better in the admissions process. Trust me, your child heard the same thing at the same information session. She doesn’t want to hear it again, especially from you

Unfortunately, a tour guide—usually a current student—can color your perception of a school. You and I know that that’s not a fair assessment of a college. But hey, we’re only human. On our college tours, I developed a twitch if a well-meaning guide used the word “schpiel” more than once, For example, one student guide at a very fine small liberal arts school kept reminding our group that the admissions office told him he had to be sure to give us the “schpiel” on—you fill in the blank. Pointing out that you are giving a “schpiel” is the irritating equivalent of overacting.

Another word I never again want to hear from a tour guide’s mouth is that the school is “awesome.” Awesome covers a large vague, area of accomplishment and fun. Which brings me to another pet peeve. You’re given the impression that kids on these campuses are conducting Nobel Prize-worthy research. Everyone’s racing to find the cure for cancer or write the semiotics textbook of our generation. If this is case, how come I haven’t noticed? I read the papers.

A lot of schools try to claim a piece of the Ivy League cachet. We have public ivies, little ivies, ivy equivalents and actual Ivy League schools. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Among them are plenty of wonderful, scholarly and yes, prestigious schools, that are not one of the “official” eight Ivy League schools. Claiming ersatz ivy status is a red flag that the school is desperate to sell itself.

Various colleges had impressive amenities. For example, Starbucks on campus was very attractive to Anna. My girl expects to go off to college with a fully loaded Starbucks card and she doesn’t want to have to go on an expedition to satisfy her caffeine fix. To be fair, she also carefully inspected science buildings and noted the variety of majors each school offered. Interesting fact: every college campus we visited has an observatory.

At this ridiculously early juncture in his college search, Adam rated schools by how boring the tour guide or the information session could become. But things balanced out if the school’s surrounding environs included a great diner.

Ken was the easiest going of the four of us. He wants Anna to be happy and fulfilled. The rest is commentary for him. He was also the brains behind College Tour 2011-2012. He planned and executed this trip like a six-star general. (That means he joins an exclusive group that only includes George Washington and John Pershing of World War I). We ran on time and our accommodations were first rate.

As for me, my priority is also for Anna to be happy and fulfilled in college. Having said that, I think she can achieve those things on campuses in quaint towns with great shopping. But when it came down to it, I liked schools that had some curriculum requirements—I was especially fond of one university where students had to be proficient in a foreign language. I also paid close attention to places that were equally strong in the sciences and humanities.

In conclusion, (don’t use that well-worn phrase on your college essay!) here are the more salient lessons of College Tour 2011-2012:

Parents, do not speak until spoken to before, during or after a tour or information session. Give your child a neutral answer if she accuses you of favoring one school over another. Say something like: My only wish is for you to be happy. Your kid won’t believe you, but it can make a three hour car ride more bearable.

Whatever you do, take this process one day at a time. That includes not freaking out about the application essays or the tuition within earshot of your future college student. Never, ever, suggest to your child to apply somewhere early decision. Let her come to her own conclusion about a potentially binding contract with a college’s admissions office.

Do marvel at how independent your future collegian is as she marches up to admissions to confirm tour and interview times. And don’t forget to take Vitamin C before, during and after the trip. Stress can weaken the immune system and lead to colds.