A familiar sight, my grandchild absorbed in his ‘screens.’ Focused on a small rectangle of light and magic, absorbed in animated conflicts, he is cocooned within the world around him. Like a writer subsumed by his concentration, he startles and remonstrates if someone barges into the room with real-life presence and demands.
As I age, I can be present to my family, my grandkids, as happened recently on a trip to my childhood neighborhood. I would point out landmarks—a now empty lot where our house once stood, my grade school, my best buddy’s home, the ricotta store. Acting like a tour guide, I passed along footnotes on the passing scene. But all the time, I was running a movie behind my eyes, screening flashbacks and backstories. Us guys throwing snowballs from across the street at the O in Roman Cleanser sign still visible on the sidewall of Wajo’s grocery store and the spitting contests where I was the acknowledged champ…could clear four sidewalk squares with just the right booger. But I couldn’t stop to relay all that. Not in real time. I would be using up their lifetimes to relive mine. And they still wouldn’t be able to know it the way I did, the way I experienced that time and place.
And so, I startled over and over as we walked along whenever a child or grandchild broke into my throwback screen-time:
“So, how many corner stores were there on your way to school?”
“How come the school is closed?”
“Did you have Little League in those days?”
So, when I wonder if it’s healthy for a child to be so absorbed in computer games and social media, I have to realize that I can get lost in my own dramas, locked in my own memory vault. And if I can’t quite understand the appeal that screens have for my kids, I have to remind myself that not everything we experience and feel can cross the generation gap. And anyway, no one can experience what I went through. My story is my own and only the broadest outlines can be shared. Unless I were a very good story teller…and even then. As my wise father-in-law once said when asked to describe his experience as a sailor in WWII, “If you were there, I don’t have to tell you. If you weren’t, I don’t have the words.”