"Are we there yet?"
I can't believe she's actually asking. It's not something kids actually say. It's a punchline. It's a movie quote or a book title. And yet, here she is, the words slipping out through her lips like a snake's tongue of boredom.
"I already told you, I'm not answering that question." The internal contradiction of the statement is not lost on me. I add it to the dung heap of parental inconsistency that will plague me in her teen years.
"But I'm so bored," she continues, drawing the words out in the tortured drawl only a child can achieve.
It's been a long week, this annual pilgrimage to the pool which happens to be attached to my in-laws. The kids and their cousins have been hyperactive for 5 days: eating, not-sleeping, swimming, arguing, pretending, and of course, playing too many video games.
"Why don't you play something on your DS?" I cajole, working my self deeper into the bad-dad hall of fame. I imagine myself a kind of pusher, proffering the addict's preferred drug so as to close the sale.
"I'm tired of all my games." I know this feeling too well to offer up argument. But then I have a rare moment of clarity, and turn on my own DS.
"Turn your DS on and hit the 'PictoChat' button."
She does. And for the next hour, we proceed to have a heart-to-heart chat, an entertaining one illustrated with hand-drawn smiley faces and the occasional unintelligible gibberish.
Text interactions are simply different than oral ones. 12 years ago, while courting my wife, I was relocated to Australia for several months. It was a critical stage in our relationship, and given my unthinkable luck in her even paying attention to me, I was terrified she would find someone cuter, richer, and funnier than me while I was gone. So I found her a leftover company laptop and we continued our courtship every night on IRC.
The barrier of time and distance was very real, but the barriers between us as people seemed less important when we were typing. Rather than sitting on the phone, thinking of things to say, filling in the awkward silences, we were instead connected asynchronously. We had time to compose our thoughts. Time to let the silences simply be.
Even when we weren't chatting, we remained connected. I'd begin my work day as she headed for bed, but if a random thought occurred to me, or I just wanted a ping that she was still there thousands of miles away, a simple "ILU" in the chat window would suffice.
Today, my wife and I work from home. We're both writers, but she has the added burden of being the primary caregiver for our kids. She wakes at 5, writes for a few hours, and begins her second, much harder and more important job. In the evenings, kids asleep, she researches and drafts. I, on the other hand, work a fairly standard schedule. Most of our interaction is again asynchronous -- our lives intermediated by a mail server in Florida and the big AIM server farm in the sky.
During the course of both our working days, we're in constant communication -- but only rarely by voice. Instead, we maintain a near constant connection through instant messenger, whether on phones or on computers. If the phone rings and it's for me, she will IM me, two floors away, to tell me to pick up. I IM her as I head out the door for lunch, even though a yell up the stairs would suffice.
These connections aren't distancing -- they're entangling. The level of our codependence is deep, but we wouldn't have it any other way. Without IM, we'd be one of those saccharin couples calling each other ten times a day from cubicle to cubicle, engaging in pointless invocations of "no, you hang up."
This level of text-driven intimacy is not unique to my wife. In a very real way, most of my meaningful communication is carried out through a keyboard. My employers, clients, editors, colleagues -- most of my professional life -– is carried out through email and IM.
This keyboard dominated existence has had a reactionary effect in what I do in my "free time." When playing games, I am drawn to environments where voice-chat is the default, and with my purchase of an Xbox LIVE Camera, where video makes sense. But in almost all cases, the voice-chat is with people with whom my primary relationship is still text. Just as conference calls and the occasional face-to-face meeting are important for teleworkers, so to is a voice-chat enabled game session critical to having a sense that there are real people on the other side of the keys.
But what shame I may have felt, down amongst the laundry fuzz in the corners of my self-worth, that I lived behind a shield of pixels and clacking keys, disappeared when I sat with my daughter, exchanging observations about life, vacations, Hannah Montana and the trials of having a younger brother. The 4 LCD screens, styli and short-distance WiFi penetrated where ears and mouths and air molecules couldn't.
With PictoChat, we were no longer authority and dependent. We were, for a brief time, on the same page. Doodles and all.