Friday, May 27, 2011

The Hunt for Lost October

The Internet is a family killer, right? Kids won’t come out of their bedrooms, locked in World of Warcraft. Dinner, when the family is together at all, is a sulky time of furtive peeks at text messages.

If you have a home like that, populated with e-buzzed teens, take heart. Today’s enemy will soon be your friend. When hell freezes over? you say. No, when they go off to college.
run silent, run deep
Our youngest took off last fall. The break is dramatic. You really start to feel it in October, as you go from heavy daily contact (at least visual sightings) to nothing. Nada. Zilch. It turns out they’ve been waiting for this for a long time. A bird flown from the cage. It’s impossible to get them back in, even if you wanted to (and after years of changing the cuttlebone and the newspaper at the bottom of the cage, let’s face it, there is some relief on both sides).

You hate to call them all the time, but waiting for the phone to ring can be pretty unrewarding. Despite what they suspect, you don’t want to know everything they are doing, at least I don’t. Just the opposite, in fact. I don’t think my heart could take the full details. Ignorance is bliss.

For a while anyway: eventually, too much ignorance spawns worry. And then the delirious projections of your own youthful transgressions begin: He hasn’t called because he hasn’t been to class in three weeks. He hasn’t called because he has gone off with friends on a trip he knows he shouldn't take. He hasn’t called because he fell and hit his head while running and didn’t have an ID and the hospital doesn’t know who he is.

You get the idea. As a dad, I just want to know that my sons in college are engaged with their schoolwork and are making friends. That they are happy. The rest will follow. They are on their own now. Which means that although I no longer get to nag I still have the joy of worrying, indeed the heightened ecstasy that comes from fretting about something you care about but are powerless to affect. After a while, we let go of pointless worry---it’s that or go crazy---but in transition, you need some way to stay in touch.

The telephone is great, of course, but in our family a phone call is a big event. At first, while they are breaking free, it’s tough to get them to call at all. And even when they take pity and call once in a while, the loss of a child’s daily presence is palpable. This is why Al Gore invented the Internet, so parents would have email and instant messaging.

Email and IM restore a sense of amiable, unobtrusive presence. Hitting a few keys on the computer is almost like calling up to my sons’ bedroom that dinner is ready, even (or especially) when it elicits the same silence, the one that means I know they have heard me and they know I know and all is right with the world.

One of our sons is an emailer, the other an IMer. For whatever reason, neither one seems to respond to the other medium. As far as I know, emails to the IMer go into a black hole. And I never see the emailer online in a way I could IM him; I think the IM program calls it “hiding.”

I stay in touch with the emailer in the current-events chatty kind of way we enjoy. We send each other notes about politics and economics and share links to stories and opinion pieces we think are thoughtful or outrageous. Not only is this entertaining, but it gives me a window into his state of mind: as long as he and I can share a joke about Donald Trump, I know his emotional reserves are intact.

Instant messaging is a terser medium, so with that son I have to be more of a cryptographer. I’ll see the little green light in a chat program that means he’s there somewhere and I’ll send him a “Hey, how are you?” I usually get a word or two in response within a few minutes. “Great,” means what it says. “Good house” (for a Men’s Glee Club performance) or “Only one more final,” is code for “perfect.”

This is all I need. Just the ability, or the illusion of the ability, to reach out and touch them. Years of Tom Clancy novels have caused me to think of my college boys as great nuclear submarines gliding gracefully through murky depths. Rigged for silent running, but detectable by a ping from the heart.


  1. Mac,

    Not a day goes by that I don't think of the great technology we have for keeping in touch with the girls! The method of choice for us is texting. With our iPhones we can be in contact with no regard to location or event or interruption. It makes me feel connected to their lives but not interfering. I try to tell them what it was like when I was their age and we had a single family phone connected by a wire to the wall and we also sent letters in the mail to keep in contact. They look at me with a "How did you survive?" look.


  2. Hi Mac - stopping by this blog more and more; great writing.

    My little girl is growing up abroad in Spain. With the language barrier I would have been lost without Skype. Being able to see her, and have her see me, and my love and interest in her, have allowed me to stay in her world in tricky circumstances. I sometimes wonder when people hanker after the elusive good old days if they realise what it would mean?

    All best and please keep 'em coming.