Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Brother Is Watching, and Boy, Is He Confused

This is not really about the shenanigans of Wired's Evan Ratliff, who is trying to disappear off the face of this way-too-connected-and-nosey earth in an effort to see if we truly are way too connected and nosey.

This is about, Hey, I'm Jealous and Why Can't the Rest of Us Do This?

Ratliff has written his own sociological experiment and cast himself as the leading man. He is attempting to stay "lost" for 30 days, beginning back on Aug. 15. No texting, no Twittering, none of that awful Facebook business. He'll likely have to avoid hidden cameras (and they are everywhere) at grocery stores, malls, ATMs, wherever. He has probably had to turn to using cash instead of debit cards, just to cover his trail.

In a word, he's kicking Big Brother's you-know-what and making him spin around in circles.

Big Brother was an Orwellian leader long before it was a lame reality TV show. And lest you think this sounds a little like Amy Is On Lortab, maybe you should reread 1984 and join the paranoia party with me. Because people, this is a crazy train. And nobody is requiring you to ride. Hop off at any time, and live in ignorance with me. It's a beautiful place.

And I know many of you are looking to relocate to a less-connected place, as evidenced by the accidental tourists who land here. According to this morning's stats, 19.92 percent of visitors to this site arrive by Googling "i hate texting." Maybe they're looking for a support group, a kindred spirit, ways to break the habit, I have no idea. But whatever you're looking for, I hope you've found that you're not alone. I hate texting, too. My hatred toward texting is so fierce that we forbid the practice in our family and slap fines of $1 per text on the one kid who even has a cell phone. And just so you'll know, we politely ask guests not to text. At one summer party involving pre-teens, the cell phones popped out the minute they walked in the door. I quietly walked over to a group of girls and their texting ways, and I politely informed them, "Put the phones away, or I'll put them away until your parents pick you up." So that made my kids the most popular kids in school. I don't care. My house. My rules.

But texting is only a small part of a much larger problem. I call it the Gladys Kravitz Generation. Everyone is looking through virtual windows at everyone else, tapping everyone on the virtual shoulder, being all virtually nosey.

Back in the day, parents teetered on espionage by unearthing a diary or journal in their kid's bedroom. I long for those days. Now, we have the internet to help us do our job, and let's just admit here that sometimes it's just TMI. We are exposed to and are guilted into absorbing too much information every day. And it's exhausting.

I was dining on a delicious chicken sandwich with friends recently, and as they were comparing notes about school websites and homework assignments and grade reporting practices and all those things that were totally foreign to parents a generation ago and make us totally anxious and occasionally ticked-off, I wiped my mouth and asked, "Don't you ever wish we didn't even have access to this stuff?"

And you could have heard a pin drop, when Tommy stopped and locked the door. (Sorry--my inner Kenny Rogers just oozed out.)

"What do you mean?"

"What I MEAN is," I explained, while polishing off my daughter's fries, "don't you wish it didn't even exist? All this technology? Like there was still a mystique about report cards and 'incompletes' and 'tardies' and missed homework assignments?"

"I've never really thought about it."

"Maybe you should. Maybe we all should. It doesn't mean you love your kids less if you don't stay on top of their homework or grades. Just enjoy the excitement of report card time, and deal with it then. In the meantime, let the kids handle their business." As a policy, it sounds perfectly reasonable. In reality, we know the follow-through will be shoddy. It's not our fault; we already have access. It's hard to turn back.

I'll come clean, here: I do check my kids' grades. Not daily. Maybe not even weekly. But I do it. Not because I have a burning desire to help them with math, but because I need the occasional bargaining tool.

"Take you to a movie? I don't think so. You pull up that science grade, then we'll talk."

When iHomes and TVs are blaring at top volume and the noise is deafening, I pay a little visit to the computer, and sometimes, the hammer comes down with a painful blow. "Turn that music down and go read some history, would you? And for not turning in an assignment last Wednesday? Mop the kitchen floor."

My techno-fatigue may be part of a larger disorder, but I remain unapologetic. I know enough to get by, and that's enough. For me, anyway. I still refer to my cell phone as a "car phone." It's a respectable pocket-size model that I received as a gift some four years ago. (I didn't ask for it.) It does not have texting capabilities, unless you know how to type in Hindi or whatever is required when using number keys as letters. It does not take pictures. It stays in my car and never crosses the threshold into my house. I do not Twitter. I do not have a Facebook page. If we know each other, I may tell you how tired I am or that I'm baking apple brown betty, but I generally keep those things to myself and not on a real-time APB.

So, considering my relative abstinence from technology, could I disappear for 30 days without a trace? In a snap. And without a 12-step program. For all you know, I could have played shuffleboard with Evan Ratliff on the lido deck yesterday afternoon.

I didn't. But I could have.

Have a happy (and text-free) weekend . . .

Sunday, September 06, 2009

This Happy Meal Took a Turn

At 11 o'clock Saturday night, we stopped at a McDonald's, because we only want the best for our kids. A Happy Meal, we figured, would fill the bill and knock them out cold until we would wake them up at 1 a.m. when we got home and tuck them in bed, still wearing grass-stained jeans and sporting dirty feet. Don't judge.

It wasn't until Sunday afternoon that I asked, "Hey, what sort of toy did you get in the Happy Meal?"

"Paper dolls! American Girl paper dolls!" And off she went, to bring them to me. So proud. This miniature book, with a built-in yellow ribbon, neatly tying the covers together to keep the paper dolls in place and the fold-out scenery neatly creased. It was so darn sweet, a person could cry just thinking about it. This, I thought, may be just about the cutest thing McDonald's has ever done. American Girl paper dolls.

Not. So. Fast.

"It's the newest American Girl! Julie!"

"What time period is she from?"

"The '70s."

"The NINETEEN70s? That's not a historical period. That's my childhood. Give me that." And I read the intro about Julie Albright, who I must tell you was born at least roughly around the same year that I was born, so I should know a little something about the early '70s, Miss Julie Albright, and one of those things is that MODERN history does not count when you are manufacturing and distributing dolls and books about historical characters.

Julie's story takes a detour from the typical American Girl tale. Kit, for example, is a resourceful girl from the Great Depression (1924). Felicity is a spirited colonial girl (1774). Kaya is a daring Nez Perce girl (1764). Molly is a patriotic girl who helps hold things together on the homefront during WWII (1944).

Julie is a pre-teen who plays basketball and enjoys fondue (1974).

Julie and I are sort of peers--in a time sense, anyway--but our worlds were so vastly different back in 1974 that I believe she must have been living in some foreign land. Like San Francisco.

In the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, "there were big changes happening in America. Her (newly divorced and recently relocated) mom started working full-time, running her own shop called 'Gladrags.' Protesters marched against the Vietnam War. Laws were passed to protect the environment and endangered species. Julie found her inner Democrat at the tender age of 12. She would one day grow up to be a lobbyist and work alongside a Tennesseean named Al Gore and talk way too much about carbon footprints and global warming."

OK, I made up that last part, but you get the picture.

It wasn't always easy getting other people to be open to new ideas, though. While change could be hard to accept, Julie realized that when it's important--when a friend is in trouble, an animal is endangered, or a rule needs to be rewritten--it's time to make the change happen yourself!

Because that's what 12-year-olds do. And then you turn the page and learn how to make your own Cootie Catcher, like Julie did. When she and her activist friends weren't effecting change in the Bay area, these trendsetters were busily crafting fortune-telling devices that they called "Cootie Catchers" out of 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. (I always thought we egocentric pre-teens of suburban Atlanta invented these, along with paper footballs and personal notes disguised as origami. But as we all know, Georgia is on the other side of the continent from California, and all trends and fashion start there and eventually make their way across the land. Like a slow-moving wave.)

Marietta, Georgia eventually caught up with other trends, too, as I remember a girl who rode my school bus lived with only her mom after her parents divorced. They lived in one of the biggest colonials in our neighborhood. Her mom played a lot of tennis and made fish sticks for dinner. The girl had a trampoline and a canopy bed. Apparently divorce was more lucrative back in the '70s.

In my limited research, I couldn't find what Julie's mom sold at Gladrags. But whatever it was, it must have been expensive and in high demand because according to the American Girl catalog, Julie wears all the latest fashions, like a calico dress and matching bandana, and she has cool "sound accessories" (a hi-fi record player), as well as a banana seat bike and, as if you didn't see this coming, a stupid canopy bed.

As with any Happy Meal deal, you can't request which toy is tucked away in your Happy Meal box. It's the luck of the draw. Pure chance. A roll of the dice. But if you hurry, maybe you
can drive through a few times this week to increase your chances and read more about Julie, Creative '70s Girl, and her best friend, Ivy, and set up little paper scenes in their paper doll kitchen, equipped with avocado green appliances, Jiffy Pop popcorn and one of the country's first microwave ovens.

Offer ends Sept. 10.