Straddling the Divide

Life before and after the Internet

When I met my husband, he was 24. He had long purple hair and an Anarchy shirt he wore to blow glass at the university where I attended. He was a small, skinny person who paid close attention to everything I said.

I was flattered. No one had ever paid attention to me before, except maybe to get me in bed. But he listened to everything I said, as if I was brilliant. His focus on me made me bloom. Suddenly I found myself speaking out about things, saying my real opinion, rather than lurking in the background all the time. After awhile, I began to dye my hair red to match my new persona: the outspoken smart woman with something to say.

We collected enough money to go to Japan, where we got jobs teaching English and traveled around, seeing the sights. We took the money earned during our Japanese adventure and traveled through China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo. At some point in New Zealand we looked at each other and said “let’s get married!” So we came home and did so.

During this entire time we argued, we dreamed, we looked around us. Sometimes uncomfortably, we experienced the trials of our adventures. We got sick, we fell down, we got stung by jellyfish, we got tired and hot and annoyed. We read books, books that we found in the places we stayed. There were no other books to be had. I read things I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and it was a pleasure.

We did not have smart phones. We did not have laptops. We did not have Kindles. Those things hadn’t been invented yet.

I can still remember when my world changed. It was 2000, and we had a one-year-old. We got Apple laptops that we kept under the couch. Whenever we wanted them, we could pull them out and open them up. It was great, because it meant I could whip it out anytime the baby went to sleep (which wasn’t often) and write. I wrote two children’s novels there on that couch during those snatched moments of time.

My husband, on the other hand, was discovering the Internet.

I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t see it coming. It just sort of drifted in, this life where there was a screen between us. I was washing diapers and building chicken coops and nursing a lot, and he was more and more often behind this screen. I could see him there on the couch, but he wasn’t there: he was immersed in another reality. And I found, as I became pregnant for a second time, that I was back in my old life, the life where I wasn’t heard or seen. All that focus on me, all those adventures, all that life together: it was as if some key thing that had changed me, changed my life, was being erased.

This was the first time I experienced debilitating depression.

When my husband finally heard me, finally grasped that I just wanted to disappear like a watermelon seed being squirted out of the universe, he agreed to let me take a trip. I left on August 29, 2001 to travel the Eastern half of the US in a rented car. Needless to say, there is nothing like being on the wrong side of the country when something like 9/11 happens to make your depression dry up — to make you realize exactly what a great life you have. When I got home, my older child looked much smaller, and my house looked like the place I wanted to live. And I found I could live with the screen on my husband’s lap.

Fast forward nine years. The children are now 9 and 12. It’s been hard work, but my husband and I have managed to raise our two daughters pretty much without screens. They’re both good travelers; they have the routine down. They have sketchbooks, and Playmobil people, and MP3 players. They draw comics and do Exquisite Corpse together and play games. They are totally present; they are totally unique; they are totally creative. I feel exhausted sometimes, but amazed at these people who have appeared in my life. Our home life is full of their drawings, their stories, their play.

Here’s where things change: one of them goes off to middle school.

The thing about middle school is, you have to give your kid a phone. We live rurally, and our child is now taking the bus in the afternoons, or we are picking her up; and we need to be able to communicate changes of plans. So we buy her a flip phone.

It takes her about a year and a half before she is involved with the phone enough to actually go into the preferences and begin dinking around. A friend has to show her how — in fact, it is friends who ultimately show her that there are games on the phone, that you can change the colors and the ringtones. She is fascinated. Her ringtones start to change weekly.

Then high school looms, and in 9th grade my husband buys her a smartphone. The plan has very little data, because I am resisting the transition to data. I don’t want to have those children who stare at their phones all the time. Second child is now in middle school, and is using a cheapie phone, and plays with it all the time. No adjustment here, just directly diving into the technology. So no data, thank you very much.

But here’s where the best of intentions fall apart: my husband converts us to a phone plan with essentially limitless data, because the family plan is cheaper. And smartphones suddenly become totally affordable.

How can I say no to this? How can I say: no, I want my children to hang onto as much of their childhoods as they can, and forget the expense? How can I say, I don’t want my kids to be connected to the world’s zeitgeist? I’ve been having this technology conversation with my husband so much by now. I’m tired. And my kids are asking about it. They’re ready.

I give up. So now we all have smartphones, with data. It’s 2015.

Fast forward two years, to 2017.

Younger child gets into the car when I arrive at school, and sits in the back seat because they know that they can look at their phone if they’re back there. I try to make a rule saying no phones in the car on the way home from school, but this keeps slipping, and eventually I feel like an asshole for enforcing it. The kids are tired and want to zone out.

(But couldn’t they zone out by listening to music and watching the amazing countryside go by?)

Once home, they go up to their rooms, or get on computers. No one ever goes outside, despite my pleading noises. The treehouse we built for them (too late) has never been used. No one helps with the garden anymore. There are evenings when we all sit around the living room with our screens in front of us, and when my husband suggests going out for a hike (he’s learning!), no one wants to go. When we take a vacation, the kids are on their phones in the middle of Paris, London, Yosemite. They tire easily, and want to get back to the hotel after only a few hours out, so they can zone out again, chat with their friends. The conversation at home is about memes and the latest John Oliver. I have learned not to complain about the screens. I am the lady who whines about technology, even though I also teach technology to children for a living.

Depression seems to come more easily these days.

Now, before you think to yourself this is all crap, get with it, this is the world now: it’s important that you know, I participate in this too — and that’s partly why I mourn it so much. When I dream at night, it’s more likely that I’ll dream about information than about flying, or the T Rex outside my window. I wake up sometimes with flight reservation texts on the backs of my eyelids, and often fall asleep with my mouse fingers twitching. I watch John Oliver too, partly to stay connected to my kids, but also because I like it. But there is something about all of this, some difference between this and my previous life, that jangles at me. I feel vaguely that something has gone awry.

On one hand, our conversations are much enriched by the flow of information. We have lively discussions about the world at large, about politics and history and larger-than-life personalities, things outside our small community. But on the other hand, my kids take little notice of the world outside their window. Bobcats pass by outside while they’re looking at cat videos. The world at large is in their living room, and they have no time for nature, or contemplation, or just lying in the grass doing nothing.

And it’s this doing nothing, this leaving space in your brain for something to develop, that I really feel is missing. My kids went, in the space of two or three years, from people who create to people who consume. Don’t get me wrong, they draw in their sketchbooks still, but the narratives that they tell themselves, the open-ended thought processes, the observations — these have largely been subsumed under the flow of information.

And so I’m torn. I love that they explore this new realm with such vigor. Perhaps the closing up of possibility, or at least the exchange of personally-created possibility for external possibility, is just a factor of teenage. This is something I wouldn’t know, having never had teenagers before. But I can’t help mourning the incredibly unique voices they once spoke in. I can’t help mourning the times when my husband and I moved through the world together, rather than with screens between us. I can’t help seeing those screens as a barrier between people who love each other, even as they provide fodder for evening discussion. It’s the conundrum of people like me, whose lives have straddled that change: from manual to digital; from hands-on to informational; from interior narratives to exterior ones.

I hope, with all my heart, that at some point my kids will find their own selves in among the digital noise, and find a way to be quiet now and then, to listen to the beats of their own minds.