Thursday, April 29, 2010

114 days to Bar Mitzvah: electronics

There is a plague in our house. It takes many forms but goes by a single name: electronics. We use the word to mean any item whose technological makeup is either too complex or too current to make sense to us.

"Electronics" is the word we use to describe whatever gadget presently commands most of the Jawa's attention at the expense of everything else. Some weeks, "electronics" means endless simple, yet addictive, iPod Touch applications. They may be games involving fishing, lobbing explosives at things or jumping on moving platforms until you reach the top of the screen. They are best played hunched over, your eyes no more than three inches from the screen.

Last week, the iPod Touch was banned. Some argument got out of hand, so Sandra Bullock banned the iPod Touch from Tuesday to Tuesday. She took the thing and hid it. Its absence went unmentioned for most of the week. Then, on Monday morning, the Jawa decided to see if he could convince his mother that "one whole week" ended with the beginning of the work week. For his troubles, he got hung up on.

It didn't really matter anyway. There are several alternate forms of "electronics." All are designed to capture the user's attention and then hang onto it with a death grip, no matter what is going on around him. With the iPod Touch out of commission, the Jawa turned to more traditional devices.

The easiest one to work is the desktop PC. It's easy because, as anyone who works in an office in the 21st-century knows, it's impossible to determine whether someone is doing work or screwing off unless you see what's on the screen. The physical actions are the same: you're sitting there, staring into a screen, typing.

And as anyone who's every worked in a cubicle should know, it's very obvious when you hurriedly click from one window to another because your boss just snuck up on you. Same goes for Jawas who are supposed to be doing homework.

Homework, then, has become a game of cat-and-mouse. Is he really looking for information about the Bubonic Plague? Is that the Brandeis Hillel Day School website -- thank you, by the way, for the convenience of homework assignments posted online, but there is a tradeoff in that there's no way to accurately predict how long it takes to get information on the day's homework online; sometimes it takes a few seconds, leaving the savvy user/student, who has established a pattern of taking at least five minutes to retrieve assignments, a solid block of time to surf the web before anyone notices -- or is it iTunes? Is that You Tube video I see the documentary on the lawsuit involving the ball Barry Bonds hit for his 756th home run, or is it another episode of "Mythbusters?"

It's become very difficult to tell, which is why the desktop PC remains the go-to device.

The new miniature net book (or whatever they call it) laptop we got him runs a close second. All the kids use them, we were told by the school counselor, especially ones lacking organization skills -- and legible handwriting. No complaints here. The mini laptop is paying for itself in spades at school. At home, though, it's another gray area.

The truly nefarious thing about electronics is that the most obvious ones turn out to be the least malignant. To play Guitar Hero on the Wii, you have to go downstairs (which can be creepy sometimes at night because you have to walk through the laundry room to get there and besides, if you're down there and everyone else is upstairs, what's to stop some maniac from busting out the window down there and kidnapping you? On the Jawa scale, being downstairs alone at night ranks just behind spooky heating vents on the uneasiness scale). You have to fire up the TV, change all the settings, plug in the controllers, hook up the guitars... you get the picture. Guitar Hero is an event. You can't just snap it on and disappear, like you can with your Nintendo DS or your iPod Touch.

Even the venerable DS, now that I mention it, has taken a back seat to the remarkable capabilities of the Jawa's two iPods. I'm not sure why he has two. There doesn't seem to be much actual music on the Touch; mostly TV shows.

Which is significant. With all of these amazing technological advances, with all of the Jawa's obsessiveness over his iPod "apps," which, while including some things practical (like one that gives you sports score updates in real time) lean heavily toward time-wasters. There is the app that mimics the sound of pouring a beer into a glass. There is the one where you fish for exotic fish, earning points based on the (completely randomly determined) type of fish you catch.

There is the application that, when you click on it, simply releases the sound of a particularly loud, torque-bearing burp.

Just now we were driving home from weekly Rabbi class. I picked the Jawa up at school, watched him stare at his iPod Touch, dropped him at the temple, then watched him stare at his iPod Touch again. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we live in San Francisco. It's not like we're driving past an anonymous landscape of Wal-Marts and Dairy Queens, in other words.

Everyone's busy. We don't get much actual time together where we're not doing our own things. We need to take advantage of whatever little snips of time we can get. All these experienced parents tell us they have their best conversations with their teens while driving. "They open up more when you're not looking at them," they say.

And as a child of the 1970s, I've long considered the fathering ideal to be Tom Corbett, roaring down the street in his MGTD, answering Eddie's questions with patience and humor. How effective would Tom have been, had Eddie been buried in his iPod or miles away, thanks to sound-cancelling headphones?

I made him to shut the thing down; told him he was missing the world as it went by. He wasn't happy. "Like I don't see this stuff all the time," he said, reaching for sarcasm but attaining only transparent impatience.

I didn't want to say, "Hey! You're always saying how we never spend time together! Well, it's not a trip to the circus but here we are! No one else to talk to but each other!"

I'll say this for my Jawa. He's very resilient. Less than two minutes later, he was back in a good mood and ready to make the kind of small talk that was once, in the pre-electronics days, effortless.

And then we got home and he marched directly to his room, switched his PC on, and dove into his homework. I think.

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