Technology, a boy on the brink of adulthood, some questions

My son Jack and I spent most of last Sunday in the kitchen together. Although he has a desk upstairs in his bedroom, and I have one in my office, the kitchen is the place in this house where most of the creative work gets done, whether it’s putting together a pot of soup, writing a blog post, reading manuscripts, or composing a college application essay.

Jack sat on the sofa, tackling one short essay after another on the Common App and various college supplements, while I perched at the table, reading on-line submissions for a panel I’m on next week. Between essays, he would chat with me about possible angles he might take, and then he’d go outside to shoot hoops in the driveway for ten minutes and think things through.

Essentially, Jack’s challenge was the same one every other high school senior we know is wrestling with at the moment: How to present himself in words to complete strangers who will then all-too-briefly compare him to thousands of other unique, gifted kids competing for the same spots in next year’s incoming freshman class. Of course, I have no one with whom to compare my son; I’m reading just one college application, not a thousand. And, as his mother, I’m about as far from an objective judge as I could be. But I was struck, nevertheless, by the depth of his thinking and the range of experiences that have contributed to the construction of his eighteen-year-old self.

By late that night, he’d answered one question with a sonnet, written an honest, thoughtful essay about the difficult but valuable lessons he learned from getting suspended from high school, tried to compress two summers of work he’s passionate about into a thousand characters, and described how his environment growing up has influenced the person he is today.

As Jack emailed his work from his computer across the room to mine, and we zapped edited versions back and forth, I couldn’t help but marvel at  the ease and efficiency of the process. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, we could work independently yet side by side in the coziest, most companionable room in the house. At the same time, I found myself thinking of the role that technology has — and has not — played in shaping the multi-faceted picture of my son that emerged from his day of writing and reflection.

The next day, an article in the Boston Globe, titled “Trying to Gauge the Effects of Growing up Digital” caught my eye. “A few clicks, a couple of swipes,” it begins, “and Bridget Colvin’s four- and-a half year old son, August, was tapping away on an iPad smudged with tiny fingerprints.” The author goes on to point out that “there is little doubt we are seeing only the early stages of a hyper-connected world that is changing childhood.” The images brought the point home: toddlers swiping fingers across board books, expecting the characters to come to “life;” parents handing their iPhones to fussy babies to quiet them; one-year-olds adeptly playing “Baby Birds,” a version of “Angry Birds” for the Pre-K set; three-year-olds skillfully surfing for videos on YouTube; a description of Fisher-Price’s hot new toy, the $15 Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case, an “oversize iPhone case that doubles as a baby rattle.” Since the toy was released last month, Amazon has been unable to keep it in stock; the most popular app for the case, “Where’s Puppy’s Nose,” has been downloaded more than 700,000 times.

My son Jack never was never an “easy” child; active, curious, sensitive, bright, he struggled to find his place in a world that often seemed too overwhelming. Learning how to be at ease in this world, physically and emotionally, and how to live in it fully, has always been his greatest challenge. Confronting that challenge through all the years of his childhood and adolescence, he has suffered, matured, and, in the end, blossomed.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of young adult Jack would be today had he been offered an early escape route from his complicated feelings. How would he have developed had he been able to lose himself in an app at age three or four, instead of having to negotiate the complex emotional and tactile stimulation that life continually threw at him? Would he have learned resilience if he’d been able to tune out the intensity of real experience by tuning in to an animated wonderland instead? What would feel important to him now, if he had spent the hours of his early childhood having interactive adventures in front of computer screens, instead of getting into mischief and experiencing the painful consequences? Who would he be, if he hadn’t been a boy who grew up playing in the backyard with his friends, laying on the couch under an afghan sounding out the words to “Frog and Toad,” learning to do math by collecting a hundred acorns during an autumn walk, and then adding and subtracting them into piles?

I got a disturbing glimpse of the answer to some of those questions a couple of years ago, when Jack became so enamored with video games for a while — and then so good at them – that he eschewed the real world of relationships and heartache and expectations, for a virtual one that he could create and control at will. It seemed like a perfect match up – his lightening quick brain and extraordinary hand-eye coordination made him really, really great at video games. But the more hours he put in in front of the screen, progressing through increasingly difficult levels of exceedingly complicated games, the more his ability and willingness to engage in the challenges of the real world atrophied. He lost the concentration necessary to read deeply, lost interest in homework, quit sports, pulled back from school and friends. For the better part of a difficult year, he was physically home but emotionally absent.

For Jack, making the hard choice to endure the emotional ups and downs of reality rather than escape into an alluring alternative universe, has turned out to be a formative, life-altering experience. He had to figure out how to use technology constructively, of course, as a tool with which to work, rather than as a substitute for life. But, just as important, he also had to figure out how to build a sustaining, meaningful friendship with himself — at the very moment of adolescence when we humans are often most desperate to escape from ourselves. And, because we had moved from the suburbs, where he was surrounded by friends and neighbors, to the relative isolation of the country, that friendship with himself has had to sustain him through many long, solitary hours.

“Life in rural New Hampshire was as lonely as I predicted,” Jack wrote in one essay (I quote with his permission). “The driveway was dirt and undribble-able and while the lawn was big enough for a complete baseball diamond, there weren’t any players around. Being alone with my thoughts was uncomfortable; I’d never had to be alone in my life. But in the midst of my sadness, I began to grow up. I became more creative with the ways that I entertained myself. I spent time drawing, reading, inventing card games and playing the guitar, as well as just sitting and thinking.

In my pensive misery as a twelve-year-old it dawned on me that I would never become the self- sufficient, creative person I wanted to be if I couldn’t even enjoy my own company. I would continue to distract myself with all of the problems around me and never face my own. Although I’m a social person by nature and love spending time with good friends, I owe the security I have in myself to learning how to become my own best friend, in the quiet countryside of New Hampshire.”


Jack and I talked about all this as I drove him back to school last week, where he’s taking a demanding senior-year course load and has decided to try out for the varsity basketball team – despite the fact that he’s spent the last two winter seasons playing squash. He’s been playing basketball for hours a day all fall, just for the fun of it. So, he started working out, lifting weights, running, practicing his jump shot, as a challenge to himself; whether or not he actually makes the team is less important to him than the pleasure he’s found in the discipline of trying.

As Jack would be the first to admit, just a couple of years ago, in the midst of his video-game obsession, he wouldn’t have taken on the challenge of making the team, nor would he have risked the disappointment of rejection. Now, having come to understand himself more fully, he’s realized that it’s by actively engaging in the physical world that he connects with his happiest, best self. Fortunately, when he decided he’d had his fill of video games, he had a “self” to return to, a work-in-progress self to be sure, but one that had been shaped by an early childhood without much access to TV or movies or computers.

Having spent his formative years with no choice but to learn to live in his own body and be entertained by his own imagination, he had plenty of “real world” experiences and skills to build on, some familiarity with the pleasure of making things, getting lost in a book, or climbing a mountain. Thinking about this, putting it into words on a form on his computer, he couldn’t help but wonder what life, and adolescence, might be like for a boy of his temperament coming of age in this next generation.

Having watched Jack’s journey these last eighteen years, I wonder, too. If you grow up with a gadget in the palm of your hand, do you ever develop an inner life? If large portions of your first years on earth are spent online, will you ever make contact with that sacred entity within that guides you toward your full potential as a human being? If you’re an expert at surfing the web by age three, will you ever discover the pleasure of crocheting a hat, building a snow fort, or laying on the grass and staring up at the sky? If there is no silence in your mind, no quiet place in your heart, no true solitude in your soul, do you ever hear the voice within?

We don’t have the answers to these questions; they will be revealed by the next generation of children, the ones who are happily tapping away at iPhones in their car seats. But I think it’s interesting that my eighteen-year-old son, who is a self-taught whiz on the computer, is worried about those kids. And I’m glad to hear him say that he’s grateful now for the low-tech early childhood he had – even the loneliness, even the boredom, even the hard parts.

Jack has one more essay to write, and he’s chosen the topic: mastery for the sake of mastery. In it he wants to write about the pleasure he’s found over the years in teaching himself all kinds of random, mostly useless but deeply satisfying skills: how to do the Rubik’s cube, skip stones across a pond, flip an omelet, climb rocks, hit a wicket shot in tennis, recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, juggle five balls at a time, play “Purple Haze” on the guitar.

Like I said, I’m not a very objective judge, but I think he’s ready for college.

 

Further reading: a related and fascinating article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, about the growth of low-tech Waldorf schools in the high-tech epicenter, Silicon Valley. Also, a recent piece in, of all places, Fast Company, about the disappearance of down-time.

The Shallows

It is August and the goldenrod is in bloom alongside the road.  Last night, I lay in bed, windows opened wide, and listened to the thrum of crickets, a symphonic prelude to summer’s end.  I think back to all the things I was so sure I’d do this summer, to the private to-do list I wrote for myself the first week of June, and realize that I’ve made precious little progress on any of those projects.  What have I been doing all this time?

The fact that I’ve managed to write a weekly blog entry, answer most of my e-mail, read and sometimes comment on the blogs of a few friends and fellow writers, and stay current with my pals on Facebook doesn’t exactly fill me with  a sense of accomplishment.  And yet, I tell myself, I’ve been busy–many days, really, really busy–just trying to keep up with the flow of news and information and communication that shows up on my computer screen each morning.

Over the weekend, Jack and Steve and I visited my parents in Maine.  Cell phone reception is spotty and there is no internet out on the spit of land where their house nestles on ledge, surrounded by water on three sides.  We didn’t do very much — the guys played tennis on a neighbor’s court, we went to the Farmers Market and to the Pancake Breakfast at the library, took walks, read books, cooked and ate and cleaned up.  The three days we spent hanging around the house seemed long and leisurely and lovely.  It occurred to me that, for the first time all summer, it really and truly actually felt like summer.    And then I realized why:  my computer was sitting untouched in a straw bag in the bedroom.  Freed from its siren call, unable to click, tweet, type, or browse, I was forced to give my complete, undistracted attention to the physical world before my eyes and at my fingertips.  Sky.  Water.  Flowers.   Family.  Books.  A pad of paper and a pen. It felt strange, and sort of wonderful to curl up on the couch and write by hand, in different colors of ink, on big sheets of blank paper.  I doodled, sketched, and even created a brand new, A to Z, pie-in-the-sky  to-do list, including everything from “try writing an essay for the Oprah magazine” to “find a birthday gift for John.”   Instead of making me anxious, the process was strangely calming, as if in committing all these random thoughts and ideas to paper I was already moving a step closer toward realizing some of them.

What happened to us this weekend in Maine seemed almost profound — time expanded. Each moment felt fat and full and rich. Meanwhile, something deep inside me relaxed and let go.  The really surprising thing is that, without the ability to so much as check my e-mail, the vague anxiety I’ve had for weeks, about not ever being caught up or on top of things, disappeared altogether.  I read a bound galley I should have read weeks ago and wrote a quote for it (better late than never).  I finally came up with an idea for a new video for the paperback of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” — another task that has had me stumped all summer.  It wasn’t so much that I was actually getting anything “done,” but rather that I could feel myself coming back in touch at last with that small, capricious part of me that observes and imagines and creates from the inside out.

Driving home on Sunday afternoon, we were quiet in the car.  Jack stretched out in the back seat, reading “Slaughterhouse Five,” without his earbuds in.  A rarity.  Steve drove, without the radio on.  I sat beside him, utterly absorbed in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

Talk about finding the right book at the right time.  If you are sitting in front of your own computer at this moment, reading this blog entry, my guess is that you will be as provoked and disturbed and challenged by this extraordinary book as I am.  I consider myself a thoughtful person — engaged with the world, focused on the things that matter, present in my own life.  I earn my living by writing about being in the moment.  And I do so by sitting in front of my laptop, typing words onto a screen.  Nicholas Carr is making me pause and reflect on what’s really going on here.  His research is unsettling, to say the least.

I have a vivid memory of a specific turning point in the writing of my first book, “Mitten Strings for God,” twelve years ago.  I sat on the floor, surrounded by drafts, stacks and stacks of paper that I had written by hand, typed onto the computer, printed out, and then cut up with scissors and taped together.  The room was a mess.  The pages were scrawled all over with arrows and deletions and pen marks in different colors for different levels of rewrites.  And suddenly, casting my eyes over this chaos, I saw exactly how to put it all together.  It seems like a lifetime ago, an ah-ha experience that I will never repeat no matter how many more books I write. Now, thanks to Nicholas Carr, I understand why.  It’s not simply that I have a different approach to writing now, although I do.  It’s that I have a different brain altogether.  A brain that has been radically changed and shaped by the way I use it day in and day out, interacting with the very machine upon which I type these words.  (It has been years since I wrote longhand, and then typed my work onto the computer. And if you think that small cognitive shift is meaningless, think again.)

The fact that “The Shallows” is not the blockbuster, break-out book of the summer is a surprise to me, for it has certainly rocked my world.  It has shown me, irrefutably, what’s at stake as I go about my own daily online business, how the ingrained habits of my wired life have already changed the way I think, the way I see and interact with the world, my ability to reflect, read deeply,  concentrate, and even — hard as this is to admit — my relationship with myself and the people I love the most.

Week after next, Henry will be done with his summer job, Jack will take a break from his apprenticeship in Boston, and the four of us will spend a week together, as we always do, on a lake in Maine.  A couple of years ago, bowing to pressure from the guests, the owner of the rustic old camp we return to year after year installed wi-fi in the main lodge.  The change was subtle at first.  Fewer people played Scrabble after dinner. The teenagers seemed to lose interest in flirting with one another over the perennially unfinished jigsaw puzzles, and began chatting with friends back home instead.  There was room at the game tables.  The place grew quieter.  The books on the shelves were largely untouched.  The guy who was always looking for a game of Bridge never even got out his deck of cards. Last year, we looked around one night and laughed:  the couches were full of people, all gazing at their laptops.

This year, I’ve decided that my vacation will be a vacation from my computer as well.  Steve, who read “The Shallows” first and then pressed it into my hands, is all for that.  Although we’re long past the stage where we can make such a call for our kids,  I’m hoping that they’ll at least consider taking a break from Facebook and YouTube.  I’m looking forward to a few games of Scrabble after dinner and to evenings that seem to stretch interminably toward bedtime.  For myself, I already have a to-do list:  Read deeply.  Have long talks with my husband and my boys. Listen for loons.  Write in my journal.  Notice everything.  Be amazed by the world.

P.S.  My wise and witty friend Karen Maezen Miller has posted some very thoughtful related reflections about social media in “Death by Twitter,” over at Smartly .  Have a look.  And then, let me know your thoughts:  As we grow ever more accustomed to and dependent on our technology, what to we trade away in return for speed and ease and efficiency? What have we already lost?

Web of Friends

I thought I “got” the internet.  Need a movie time? Google the theatre.  Want a book? One-click service at amazon.  Can’t get the New York Times delivered in rural New Hampshire? Read it on-line. Need to get a message out to the members of your book club?  Send a group e-mail.  Wondering what your college sophomore son is up to tonight?  Check his status on Facebook.

All of that still seems pretty amazing to me.  My kids can’t believe it when I tell them that, in my first job out of college, I typed letters on an electric typewriter, meticulously hand-correcting my five carbon copies every time I made a mistake.  Or that, back in “my day,” doing research meant going to the library, making plans with a friend required a phone call, and reading a piece you missed in yesterday’s newspaper meant rummaging through the household trash till you found it.

Like most parents of a certain age, I’ve worried about the influence of all this new technology on my children’s social and emotional development.  I read the Atlantic Magazine article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and wondered if I still had the intellectual bandwidth to read a 600-page book cover to cover, and whether my kids could indulge in their habitual web-surfing while also developing the kind of mental fortitude necessary to enjoy George Eliot or Tolstoy without skimming.  On beautiful summer days, I’d fret that they seemed more engaged in the virtual world than the real one.  And I observed, as they came of age and the number of family laptops increased by two, that they seemed to be spending more time staring at computer screens, less time just hanging out and “interfacing” with one another.

In ways large and small, most of us have sensed that our lives, our families, our relationships, are continually being transformed and shaped by the ways we use the technology at our fingertips.  I’ve watched it happen in my own house, as my sons each seemed to intuit how to do just about anything on the computer–play games, find access to arcane information, compose music, post videos, create art, and tend virtual gardens and pets.  At the same time, I was pretty sure that the on-line world held no siren call for me.  After all, I define myself as a here-and-now kind of gal, more comfortable in the kitchen than at a keyboard, preferring walks in the woods to web hopping.

And then, last fall, I published a book.  Ten years ago, when my first book came out, I went to five states on a book tour, came home, and created a fat file folder of reviews as they arrived from various small daily papers across the country.  I flew to Washington and did an interview with the Post.  A week later, Oprah called.  That was exciting; and the book pretty much sold itself–here, and in nine other countries as well. Simple.

This time, I knew things would be different.  For one thing, most of those daily papers are gone or, if they do still survive, they certainly no longer have book critics on staff.   “You need to market it yourself,” a few savvy writer friends advised in the months before pub date. “And the way to do that is to get on-line, create a presence there, reach out to your readers.”

So I asked my son Henry to help me create a website and a Facebook fan page.  And I promised myself that, once a week at least, I would make myself sit down, write something, and post it on my site.

I thought I was just doing my job as a mid-list author in this new down-sized age, getting the word out and then cultivating an audience, so that my publisher would perhaps be willing to invest in me again.  But I found that the discipline of writing a blog, even one or two short pieces a week, has kept me in closer touch not just with my readers, but with myself.  Like prayer, or yoga, or meditation, writing, too, is a practice.  I sit down, turn on the computer, and say hello to the watching, reflecting part of me.  And then I listen, and write down what that quiet inner voice has to say.

And little did I know, as I began this solitary on-line enterprise,  that I was in fact joining a remarkable community.  In the past few months, I’ve received well over a hundred letters through this website –thoughtful, introspective, generous letters, from both men and women who, having read my story, feel inspired to write and tell me a bit of their own.  Readers of my blog have welcomed me into this new world by sending me links to theirs — a vast variety of people who take the time to capture, transform, and freely share glimpses of their everyday lives.

That’s why I love a morning like this one, when the quiet of snow, and a bit of white space on my calendar, allows time for checking in on various dear friends I’ve never met, but whose lives have crossed paths, online, with mine. Thanks to these occasional blog visits, I’ve poured over Christmas photos, mourned the death of a beloved dog, cheered for teenagers accepted to college, laughed at a friend’s blow-by-blow account of a day from hell, been introduced to poets I’ve never heard of, and bought books recommended by kindred spirits whose voices and tastes I’ve come to trust.

Alas, I doubt there will ever be enough time in my own ordinary days to meet deadlines, make dinner, get the laundry done, write to my mom, talk to the kids, see a movie with my husband. . .AND read about all the doings in all of my friends’ lives as well. And yet, I do love knowing that they are out there, each one of them doing their best to live fully and thoughtfully, nurturing and loving and writing, sharing glimpses of their days and their innermost selves with anyone who has a moment to stop by.

Last night, I did an on-line chat in The Writer’s Chatroom and had occasion to mention one of my favorite blogs, justonefoot.com, written by one of my new on-line pen-pals, a mother of four who writes about family life and navigating the world on one leg, since hers was amputated six years ago.  Little did I know that she was “in” the room.  (That’s the beauty of attending a party at which you don’t actually see the guests–most of whom are probably in their pajamas!)

“I do feel that no one reads my blog most days,” Judy wrote in an e-mail afterwards, “but I generally do it for ‘me’ anyway, so if even one person sees it and smiles, that’s gravy.”

I think that, when it comes right down to it, most of us do write for ourselves, not for an audience.  We write to remind ourselves of what’s important in our lives, to move beyond our petty cares and concerns and to get in touch with our true essence, our souls, the people we are in the process of becoming.  And then, in gestures of faith and solidarity, we offer our gift, the gift of ourselves, to the world.

So, I’ll admit it here: I do feel transformed by the internet, enlarged and connected and inspired, and deeply grateful for the support and friendship that comes my way each day through the words of so many generous people, all of them engaged, each in their own ways, in the humble work of honoring the precious moment that is now.