Mr. Tolstoy tells us it is unwise ever to say, “In these times…”
Because nothing that truly matters ever really changes.
Mr. Kushner writes, “Imagination can't create anything new…it only recycles bits and pieces from the world and reassembles them into visions.”
I’m really down with this stuff. I really believe it.
When friends of mine, usually fellow parents raising young-to-teenage children, gripe and bitch about “these kids today…”, how millennials represent some new and alarming kind of beast, lazy and entitled and on and on, I tend to harbor a secret thought:
You sound like an old man.
It’s not the rock ’n’ roll. It’s the aging ears.
Youth in revolt is not the change. It’s the constant. It’s we who are changing, railing against the world. Because we don’t get to keep it.
Everything else - all this stuff we decry as we grow old - is just the world changing its clothes.
Boy, I sure sound super zen about this shit, don’t I? So calm and accepting and Dagobah system.
Here’s where I go off the rails.
Here’s where I totally lose my shit, and say, “Oh but wait: here’s the exception. Here’s the one aspect of life that’s actually getting worse. Because there’s something I grew up with, something I really value, that’s really and truly slipping away.”
I believe the shorthand for this problem is “screen time.”
I’m not talking about the Perils of Binge-Watching Stranger Things. I’m talking about our children and grandchildren’s collision course with Perpetual Connectivity. What scares me is the impending death of their solitude. And how that will affect their ability to imagine, and create.
We have three children, ages 14, 12, and eight. The elder two both have iPhones. The younger one, confronted with so much as a nanosecond of downtime, literally claws at my pocket for mine.
At this writing we have no set limits on screen time for any of our kids, a situation - yes, largely of our own making - that has driven me completely batshit insane.
And yes, it must be submitted into evidence: our children are awesome. They earn rave reviews from other parents. They are so polite, a dream, kind, thoughtful, on and on. I do not minimize or gloss over this stuff. We have great fucking kids. And, I should add (not as a bumper-sticker boast, but as illustrative color re my argument): they are honor students.
But then I see these kind and thoughtful honor students curled into perpetual commas over their iPhones...I feel the amplitude of their wrath when I attempt to take their phones away: that Gollum-esque guttural MINE!
And I freak.
ESPECIALLY: when they are with their friends. Y’all know exactly what I’m talking about.
When they are actually face-to-face with friends, literally blocking their friends’ faces with their phones, lolling backwards, all of them, a corolla of dead petals, chuckling at memes only they (individually) can see…that’s when I jump through the hole I have already made in my ceiling, and reach a new peak of pique.
Are their friends just as guilty? Maybe. But I truly think (Honey, would you hand me my cane? Because for this portion of the rant I would like to wave my cane. Thank you.) I truly think that my kids, my beautiful dutiful awesome kids, are worse than their friends.
I know how irrational this sounds. But I see my kids as the first offenders, the isolation-provokers, the ones whose phone-reflex subtly induces and wordlessly persuades their friends to take out their phones, turning a potentially-outward conversation inward (or is it a potentially-inward conversation outward?).
My childrens’ phone-iness flattens and cheapens and shallows the discourse they could be having face-to-face. And thus, I fear, are they flattened and cheapened and shallowed as people. My mind races into the future: they will enter the world as adults, flatter and cheaper and shallower versions of the children that I swear to God I was making before Steve Jobs and Jony Ive got their filthy little hands on them. And lo, doomed will they be, in their professional lives, to a lifetime of asking others if they would like fries with that.
I am driven this crazy not because my children are unimaginable and strange. I am driven this crazy because I myself am just as afflicted.
I am every bit as powerless over screens as my children. Screens have cheapened and shallowed my own life: not only the discourse I could be having with my friends and colleagues, and with my wife and children, but the discourse I once had with myself.
I confessed in an earlier post that this blog is a willful re-revving of a writing habit I have allowed to grow dormant over the past eight years. I place most of the blame for my dormancy, my quitting, on a few creative/professional stumbles I took in my late 30’s, which dented my creative confidence, and ground to a halt a daily and beloved writing habit. And so, for eight years, I did not write.
But there is another factor, besides the vacillation of my confidence, deserving of at least some portion of the blame. And it is that my writing devices, once as private an personal as a diary, have slowly become infected with internet.
Like a creeping ivy, first seductively wrapping (isn’t it pretty) and then subtly invading, one tendril at a time, starting with dialup and then cable and then wifi and then fast wifi and now damn-near ever-present super-fast wifi, all of this comprising a seige that has turned out to be - LOOK OUT SIRE! - merely one wave of a brilliant two-pronged attack: the other wave being, of course, an ever-more seductive array of increasingly delicious content, easier-to-use communication portals, and, of course, the real Sauron, the social networks, the perpetual conversations unfolding 24/7 not only with every single person I’ve ever met but with celebrities and political candidates and, you know, everyone on planet earth that I have even the slightest inclination to hear from.
I bought you, you little macbook BITCH, to get some goddamn work done.
And look what you've done. You invited all my friends over.
I spaz at my children’s helplessness re internet because I myself have been overrun. I tell my children, as I physically pry their phones away, that I, at least, had a blessed 35-year-window in which the only imagination I could hear was my own. I counsel them to find and trust their own hatchling voices, and yet I fear, in this current digital ruckus, that they might just say, Fuck it. I can't hear a thing. What else is on?
And so I lament and curse the day.
Which is when I force myself to remember Mr. Tolstoy's dictum: that the forces shaping my kids, in the ways that matter most, are the same forces that shaped me.
Is our panic over screen time just the same as our parents’ fear of television?
(And didn’t we turn out OK?)
Maybe the thing that drove our parents crazy wasn’t the stuff coming out of the television. Maybe it was the same thing that drives us crazy today - that glassy-eyed expression on our children’s faces.
Maybe we’re all just saying (and have always just said) how dare you be so entranced by “that thing,” by something else, by anything else.
Remember when you used to look that way at me?
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