Whenever I come upon my sixteen year old daughter absorbed in her laptop, I am expected to play my part in a set routine. My daughter created it, and because she is a comedian, it’s a pithy and concise bit of Vaudeville schtick. As a parent I can’t help but be proud, even though she gives herself the funny stuff and expects me to embarrass myself as the hapless straight man.
Goes something like this. I wander by. She remains motionlessly consumed in whatever is on her laptop. I stop. I turn and look at her as though I’m trying to recollect something I know I need to tell her. There’s a pause. Then maybe I mutter something like, “Oh, by the way…,” as if I just remembered what it was I wanted to say. In one swift and deft move she looks up at me as she slams shut her laptop’s screen. She gives me this…stare. It’s questioning and subtly malevolent at the same time. It’s the twist in the bit, the comic turn. Even though I am not even remotely interested in what’s on her laptop, even though I might or might not idly try to glance at the screen as I pause with my question, she, with her move and her…stare, transforms me, whether I’m glancing over her shoulder or not, mind you, into a dirty creeper who is trying to peer into her world. She’s the one who slams shut the laptop, but I am the pervert. Come on! Who’s really guilty, and of what? There’s no escaping that I’m clearly the dupe of this routine. I walk right into the trap. She’s minding her own business and then I come along with my aging vampiric desire, attempting to feed on her innocent youthful enjoyment. How dare I? “Yes? What? May I help you?” I bluster and protest that I have no interest in what she’s looking at. She continues the…stare. I stand guilty. I should be ashamed. It’s a great bit.
Classic schtick. However, like any comic routine, if you turn it slightly and look at it out of sync with its working tempo, you realize it is a ritual. It’s a ritual my daughter and I enact every time she sees me seeing her with her laptop, as if that moment demands we enact some significant understanding.
What do we understand in those moments? I think it’s rather complex, and the ritual itself, couched in comedy to countenance a large component of anxiety, played out in full each time, is the only way to fully write what all is going on. One of the things rituals do–to play amateur anthropologist for a moment–is combine a number of contradictory impulses, equivocal ideas, and mixed motives into a concrete series of repeatable and reconcilable actions. Repetition refines a chaotic mess of both malignant and ecstatic emotions and allows for more ponderable meanings and manageable sensations to take shape. Think of the handshake. I touch the flesh of someone who is a stranger to me. That in itself is a bold gesture. One doesn’t usually make to touch an other one does not know. Am I offering friendship or testing the strength of a potential threat? Am I filling a moment of awkwardness and uncertainty? Am I establishing a provisional truce or creating an alliance? Checking for weapons? Opening myself to another? The ritual handshake writes the complexity of all of these possibilities, and with a quarter-turn back, it, like every ritual, has the potential for comedy: just note how not being ready for a quick, strong handshake immediately can turn you into a pathetic, farcical, doubting mess.
I think that in the terse comedy of the laptop routine my and daughter and I carry through a ritual just as complex, and I think it revolves around something profound the computer has brought into the parent-child relationship. Why not put it starkly in the language of the Old Testament? Computers bring the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Not that this wasn’t there before computers, of course. Nothing new under the sun, to use more Old Testament language, but maybe, thanks to computers, the not-new is now more immediate.
Handling these matters has always been a miserable parental burden, and part of most parents’ strategy, I think, has always focused on timing. We try to temper the truth of the Fall by going slowly. We try to feed in the darker facts of life gradually. Our language evolves through the years of maturation. Maybe we bring the remote troubling mood of a fairy tale a touch closer as we issue our warnings about that street too far from home or that stranger who isn’t going to tell you the truth. We dance about with the talk of “bad people” or of kids who might try to talk them into doing “things they really don’t want to do.” Time, access, and distance were more in our control as we led them by the hand to peek behind certain creaky doors or at figures recumbent under pale linen shrouds. We let the moment and necessity and growth guide us. Before computers. Now the entire enormity of the human condition waits right on the other side of a squarish or oblong portal sitting on a desk in our home or resting in our child’s lap. Lies offered as truths. Truths offered as lies. Facts offered as fun. Friendly persuasion. And evil incarnate. All of it there, now, no waiting. For us, the parents, time is no longer on our side. The monster has crawled out from under the bed.
Because of the computer, my daughter and I had talks before I was ready to have them, before she was ready to have them, too, probably. Long talks. Detailed. I had to work hard to summon effective and useful metaphors. I had to use starker images. More immediate. Less ambiguous. More proximate. Implicating all that was both familiar and foreign. I issued prohibitions that were non-negotiable. I relativized notions like privacy, freedom, choice, maturity. I apologized to her for the fact that those concepts, once she sat down in front of the portal, were meaningless. Gazing into the portal, we would not pretend she was cultivating those things. Truly, we sat together and talked and beheld the Fall.
The laptop ritual acknowledges that. In a way, it’s as if the computer brought trauma, and our little ritual is a way of turning such an upheaval into a fact of life. The computer also brought complexity, and the routine allows us to bring together the complexity into something manageable. It reminds us of what we had to sacrifice as we figured out how to make a place for the computer in our home. It implicates us in the sad truths of life. It torments us a bit with a warning that the beast is really out there. And in here. And it helps us tolerate the discomfort of having to share such things with one another before either one of us was ready. And it assures my daughter that I will still pry and indulge my suspicions. It allows her to assert her autonomy in spite of my having rendered her cherished notions of freedom and independence contingent and conditional. It also allows her to be angry at me. And thank me. At least I tell myself she is thanking me. She may just be calling me a creep with no life.