My granddaughter couldn’t have been sweeter or more solicitous as she asked, “Do you know how to turn on the flashlight?”
I looked in wonderment at the little flat rectangle in my hand. “You mean this thing’s got a flashlight?” I asked. A few minutes later I knew how to turn on the light, set the alarm clock, and choose the sound I wanted for the alarm clock — which, she told me, would be the ring tone people would hear when I called them on the phone. I had read somewhere, on the internet, I think, that what the world really needs is an alarm that sounds like a dog retching; that would have anybody up and out of bed in an instant. But that wasn’t available on the menu Olivia showed me. So I chose Barking Dog instead. “Ha ha,” I thought, “I can’t wait to get home and use that for my morning alarm. Kiki’ll go bananas!”
Anybody wants to get on my bad side, just let him or her start a complaint with “Kids these days!” Kids these days are just fine. They’re about to inherit, and start running, the godawful mess we’re leaving them. Reporters have a lot of fun doing on-camera, stupid-student-on-campus interviews with questions like “Who won the Civil War?” and our flashcard-taught generation loves to make fun of the new math (which I must admit I don’t begin to understand); but I suspect they’ll manage somehow. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we never really learn something until we need to. I learned in fourth grade to add a column of multi-digit numbers, and can still do it; but there’s a tiny light-powered calculator about two feet from my right elbow that does it much faster, and probably more accurately.
“They’re not learning cursive!” is a common complaint. “How are they ever going to decipher ancient documents?” How many ancient documents have we read recently? My grandfather wrote to me in Sütterlin script. It took some work to figure out what he was saying, but the exercise had lasting effects — much as with Father William, in Lewis Carroll’s verse, who in his youth “took up the law, and argued each case with my wife; and the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw has lasted the rest of my life.”
John Kemeny, the then-president of Dartmouth, once pointed out that the average undergraduate of that time carried in his pocket more computing power than was contained in the college’s Kiewit Computer Center, a major advancement for its time that’s now long-gone. We may deplore the fact that people dining together in restaurants — especially young people — gaze at little lighted screens and presumably exchange inane messages with friends; but they can also ask the woman inside the screen to compute the tip and divide the check equitably. Or give the square root of 979. I didn’t realize I could do that myself till my granddaughters showed me how. Like them, I always say, “Thank you,” when Siri gives me information. Someday, I hope, she’ll say, “You’re welcome.” I’m trying to give her an Irish accent, too.
My son describes his two daughters as “computer-literate” (Alexandra, 25) and “computer-native” (Olivia, 22). That tiny, glowing rectangle holds literally a world of information and opinion, and unlike us old-timers who stumble through it like hikers in thick brush, they plunge confidently into it and come up with what they’re looking for. I suspect this means that future decision-makers will have access to far more reliable information in order to formulate solutions to problems. Remember your hours going through the library card catalog and locating sources? What’s not to like about this?
It’s hard to tell, at my age, whether the inability to keep up with new developments is the result of calcification of brain cells or the ever-increasing speed of change. It may be both. But this past week spent with my son’s family in western Arkansas was about much more than dragging an elderly person, whose best days were in the past century, into this one. It was about reconnecting with the generations of my family’s progeny — there are no generations in the opposite direction — on their own terms and turf. It occurred to me, as I watched them — church on Christmas Eve, boyfriends showing up, working alongside their mother in the kitchen, Olivia driving off to Texas for a wedding, Alexandra flying off to Paris with John, who’s (now I can tell the secret) carrying a ring — that of all the successes we can point to near the end of our lives, the most important must be happy, healthy, thoughtful, productive and engaged descendants. It’s not that anything we did helped make that happen (though we often dare hope it did); it’s that it happened at all, which is a cause for ineffable gratitude.
The night I returned, I set the phone alarm and settled down with Kiki, who seemed as glad to see me as I her. At six-dark-in-the-morning the barking began. Kiki leaped over me and stood, with her hind feet on my head, and just gazed at the phone. She looked over her shoulder at me with a look that said, “Yeah, that’s pretty funny, all right, but it’s no dog. You gettin’ up?” Back to the good old days.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.