A few weeks ago, after waking in the middle of the night to do what middle-aged people wake up in the middle of the night to do, I checked my email and texts before going back to bed. There in the dark, while my husband slept, it occurred to me that I'd taken multi-tasking to new heights.
I had become the very subject of an article I read online about technology rewiring our brains -- how the constant stimulation of email, texts, and Internet searches is the equivalent of an addictive high, which can only lead to a crash of epic proportions. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, thinking about how I was contributing to a society that would soon need to attend regular AA-type meetings for technoholism, all of us suffering from short-attention spans and an insatiable need to be connected, even when in a dream-like state. What kind of role model was I?
Maybe, when it comes to new communications technology, it doesn't matter.
The next morning, my youngest son, Nick, gave me a wish list for his 17th birthday. It read like something a middle-aged man might put together, someone trying to relive his childhood because all evidence of it was lost in a flood. There were books by Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, a collection of poetry by Allen Ginsberg, several Pink Floyd posters (Mother, Should I Trust the Government?), and a turntable to play his father's old record collection, to name a few.
The content of the list wasn't exactly a surprise to me. Nick doesn't have a Facebook page or Twitter account and has to be reminded to check his email. He watches indie films, believes art should always be created for art's sake, is a vegetarian, and although he's surrounded by clocks, chooses not to notice the actual time. Once, recently, I found him in bed fully clothed, with a striped knit cap on his head -- and a pom-pom on top -- ear flaps down, sipping coffee and reading Nietzsche. And no, Nietzsche wasn't assigned reading.
I've often reasoned that his emerging personality is partially the result of the year he spent lying flat -- the year I call the "lost year," when he was 12 and recovering from a still unexplained illness, which not only exhausted him and robbed him of his short-term memory, but gave him a debilitating case of vertigo.
It's fair to say that during this year, everything in our life became topsy-turvy. Rules went out the window, along with the need to keep up with the Joneses. To stay on top of his schoolwork, Nick set his own schedule with the help of a very cool teacher and books on tape (literally using an old tape player on loan from the state library). For fun, he shot movies with our old movie camera, watched Charlie Chaplin and The Godfather, played with our dog, and tossed a ball from varying degrees of horizontal. He was not instantly connected to anyone -- if you don't count me, attached at the hip.
Five years later, he's not only upright, goes to school, eats like a teenager and drives me crazy like a teenager -- he seems to have found something during that lost year that most adults are still in search of: peace. To achieve it, he turns things off when he's on overload. He'd no sooner wake up to check Facebook or Twitter than I would wear a bikini in daylight. That's not to say he doesn't appreciate what the latest technology has to offer or the occasional video game -- especially when he should be doing homework. He just rarely does more than one at a time, is not opposed to culture, enjoys fresh air, and can often be found using his IBM typewriter just for fun.
Here's the thing, and I'm admittedly only a mother and not a Gallup poll: I've met other kids who feel the same way. Granted, they're not the majority, but most of them, unlike my generation, can disconnect quicker -- and not just because their parents or teachers have taken their cellphones and laptops away. I think they genuinely know how to hang out and have a good time without them. Could it be a trend? Or is it just a fad?
In years past, Nick's wish list might have consisted of a single present, something you had to plug in and charge each night before bed. This year, however, he made a conscious decision to go retro. With a variety of lesser-priced items on his list and the fact that most of them are hardly in demand -- a glass guitar slide, printed books, vinyl records -- we were able to spend the same amount of money we would have for the single tech present and get nearly all of them.
After a vegetarian birthday dinner, and the free chocolate mousse the waitress gave him (that his father finished on his behalf), Nick sat down with us to unwrap his gifts, happily rummaging through the recycled Toy Story bag. The expression on his face was one I will long remember -- it made me forget all the teenage things he'd done over the year. It said, You understand who I am trying to become.
When he was done, he did multi-task -- but in his own way. He read while listening to vinyl records, stopping only to strum his guitar now and again. We joined him for as long as we could, lost in a time warp, but ultimately after a day of emails, texting, and working online, my husband and I were crashing and needed to head to bed. And, although it was a school night, in honor of his birthday, I pretended there were no clocks, channeled The Beatles, and just let it be -- a peaceful end to a peaceful day.
Still, I took my cell phone to bed -- just in case.