I am downstairs, late at night, working on my computer.
Suddenly there is a beep on my screen: an instant message coming in.
It's my sixteen-year-old daughter, Katie, writing from her cozy nook of a room one flight up.
"Work. How about you? What're you doing up at this hour?"
"I couldn't sleep. I was wondering about some stuff."
"Ya know...death and all that."
The new message is blinking in. My hands pause above the keys as I ponder my reply to that big one. I can picture her up there in her room, her lively brain working overtime, her big heart pounding furiously in her chest as she considers mortality in the middle of the night. Who hasn't been there?
Writing is all about response. Robert Frost once said that he lived life twice: once when he experienced it and a second time when he wrote about it. By writing down our experience, we give ourselves the opportunity to immediately reflect, to stare at the words on the page, to say: I am here.
In the digital age, there is a swirling halo of fear around what technology has done to our children, what it will do to the next generation. We mourn the idea that reading memories won't contain the smell of a library book, or the feel of turning the page. We are uneasy with the cold blue light of the screen in our living room. It is a specter, a stranger in our midst, threatening our very understanding of what it means to raise a family, to raise a new generation of lifelong readers and writers. And yet...
"You still there?"
My daughter can easily call to me across the gulf of her own experience. In fact, it's much easier online. Her fingers dancing across the keys, she can name her experience fast, for me, for friends, for her sister and her father. She is telling us her stories.
Our teenagers are writing and reading, I would posit, more than ever before. It may be reading and writing like we have never seen, but there it is nonetheless. My daughters are mystified when they hear my friends at our dinner table debating the merits or weaknesses of this computer age. For them, it is all one giant pool to dip into.
They are working through the stacks of Twilight books by their beds. They are perusing our daily newspapers at breakfast. And they are scouring Facebook for stories and visual images of their friends' experiences, posting their own. They are texting back and forth with one another, keeping in touch across long distances. They are maintaining and sustaining deep heartfelt camp and school relationships even in the midst of great change in their lives. To them, this either/or concept is strange. They laugh at our conversations, puzzled.
Their status messages are full of vigor, of spot-on observation. "Sarah is....waiting for Godot." "Joe is...wondering why people wear flip flops." These messages provoke response. Thirty-three people comment on those flip-flops. We in our forties are tempted to complain: What's the point? Why waste the time? I hear my friends say over and over: I wouldn't, couldn't join Facebook. I don't have the time.
And I wonder. When people are afraid of something do they say they have no time for it? Social networking is a way to stay in touch, but more than that, for our children, for our teenagers, and now for us too, it's a way to identify, to create groups, to belong. Isn't that time worth taking?
Everyone wants to belong. And the social networking world is one of belonging. On Facebook you can join your hometown's network, or identify with your alumni association. You can even "belong" to a page for your favorite hotdog stand, Walter's, in Mamaroneck, New York. Or a cafe, Antoinette's in Hastings on Hudson. So the people you saw there yesterday now appear, in virtual form, by your side as you work on your computer.
We ask: Is this "good" or "bad?" My daughters laugh again. My daughter Charlotte asks me, "Why does it have to be good or bad? Isn't it just what it is?" And yet, and yet...I buy a Kindle. And she, queen of the Internet, is appalled! She is miffed! She is furious! "You've sold out!" she says to me, white lipped. "How COULD you? YOU? Of all people?" Now I am totally mystified. Why in the world would she be upset? She who lives in the technouniverse!? Why her? She tries to explain.
"But that's different, Mom. This is about loving the way a book feels, holding a book in your hands. If you buy a Kindle, you are one more person who has given over to all things digital and then we will lose books forever."
I delight in her passion. I have raised a reader! But at the same time it interests me that you don't have to be a certain age for your hackles to rise regarding the gains and losses of modern technology and the digital literacy era. I am glad to know it's more complicated than that. I tell her the Kindle is helpful when I travel. I can pack hundreds of books in a slim disc. She is not impressed. I tell her I can get the book I want faster than I ever could before. She is unmoved. I am startled by her sense of tradition, of her worry that the Kindle is going to take something away from the world of books as she remembers it. I realize that the digital age is not so black and white. We are creating reading identities, and that identity building lasts a lifetime. Hers is still organic, and although she craves the screen, she so understands the joys of the paper world. Her own fingers skip around the keyboard finding the technouniverse a place of joy and togetherness, discovery and passion. But she has not forgotten the texture of a book.
In every era, as print becomes more accessible to people, there is always a fear of diluting its essence. When Ben Franklin perfected the printing press, he must have gotten quite an earful from those who cherished the handwritten scrolls of yesteryear. I imagine he delighted in the trouble he caused. I see him as the ultimate literacy crusader: between inventing the printing press and the library, this man was driven by the idea that everyone deserved access to print.
The internet age brings with it a cacophony of sound, voices, opinions, data, misinformation and crucial ideas. It can be very loud. In this world, our children can become easily overwhelmed. Yes, that is a fear. A resonant one. One day, I am working with a student who is researching butterflies on the computer. Suddenly he buries his head in his hands. "What is it, Dan?" I ask. He says: "There's too much on butterflies here!" I see his point. And yet...the pleasure of those searches! As deep and engaging as the old Golden Book encyclopedia from years ago. Now, fingers on the keys, and wham! All those people, all over the world writing about...butterflies! It's amazing! Like Milo and his dog Tock in The Phantom Tollbooth, we are able to journey into world after world. Boundaries are easier to cross, and we can reach each other across time and space, in an instant.
It is late. The screen flickers. Katie is back.
"Yes, I am here."
"Was just reading Camus. He's good on the death thing."
"Yes. How about that poem by Stanley Kunitz, the one about boy whose father has died?"
"Yes. I loved that."
"How about his line: "The boy in the flannel gown. Under the starry sky."
"That's a good line."
Screen flickers. Silent screen.
"Are you there?"
"Yes. I am always here."
I hear her rumbling around upstairs, probably searching for another blanket. She pads down the actual stairs and comes up behind me. I feel her real arm around me, her real self. In two worlds, I love her. In all worlds, she is a traveler, seeking information, stoking her imagination. I want her to have it all: the delight of the book in her hand, the words on the screen bringing her closer to people in real time and across all boundaries. As parents, we journey alongside our children. We protect the value of those passages and become fellow travelers in new universes. She draws me into her technouniverse, this precious child. And I find her there.