Ever since I took a break from Facebook a few months ago, Jenny has been calling periodically to give me quick 5 or 10 minute blasts she refers to as my Facebook posts. Recently she put me on speaker phone so she could “update her status” while she made herself some lunch. In the course of our conversation, she asked what I’ve been reading these days.
Me: The End of Absence.
Her: The End of Absinthe?
Me: Absence, not absinthe! Michael Harris’s book that won the GG for nonfiction.
It was Jenny who, indirectly, put me onto The End of Absence in her previous Facebook-update-call when she told me that local poet Arleen Paré had just been awarded a GG. Naturally I and my mouse scurried over to the award website to investigate. There I learned that Michael Harris had delved into the very topic I’ve been pondering deeply myself.
What effect will the internet have on generations who grow up never experiencing life without it?
My question, really, one that Harris hints at but doesn’t ask, is whether it’s even possible now to grow up. How do young people navigate from dependence to autonomy when they’re constantly connected to their parents, friends, and social networks?
I’ve chewed this question since last summer when a young friend visited our farm for two weeks after her high school graduation. Several times a day, she Skyped with her parents and sister in Victoria. She updated them on every meal we ate and inquired about their menus. She showed them her mosquito bites in real time. She said she wasn’t homesick, but why would she be? She hadn’t really left home.
I couldn’t help comparing her visit to my son’s graduation trip. Michael Harris sets the cutoff date at 1985. Anyone born before 1985 knows what life is like without the internet. Anyone who was born later never will. My sons were born in 1987 and 89, but we were late adopters of technology at our house. Unlike many of their classmates, my sons didn’t have cellphones in high school. When Jesse graduated in 2005 and went to England for three weeks, we didn’t hear from him until he got home. Go back one generation: my classmates and I in the 1970s disappeared from our families for months, sometimes years. In those spaces of absence, we discovered who we were. We were forced to rely on our own resources. We grew up.
I know, I know. Thoughts like these are a clear sign I’m getting old.
I’m a generation older than Michael Harris, but like him I experience the internet as blessing and curse. I’ve talked about my dependency on it:
The internet is my lifeline, my connection to employment, my means of survival, my water cooler, my get-togethers with family and friends. It’s my library, university, entertainment, town square, cooking school, daily news, Friday night drive-in movie, revival tent. It’s a gateway to a million shiny ideas.
And it has brought me some of my dearest friends.
In 2003 I travelled to England myself to do family history research. In preparation, I asked on my Staffordshire roots listserv whether anyone could help me figure out where my great-grandparents might be buried because I wanted to visit their graves. A woman who lived in Stoke-on-Trent and had worked for the County Council offered to help. Not only did she track down the cemetery, she sent a map that showed the exact location of Leonard Burgess’s grave, which was fantastic because it was unmarked and I would never have found it.
Jacqui offered to drive me to the cemetery while I was in Stoke-on-Trent. She was cautious at first, not wanting to commit herself to more than a couple of hours with me in case I was a serial killer or obnoxious bore. We liked each other enough to have lunch, and over Staffordshire oatcakes and salad we became friends.
As it happened, Jacqui and her husband Garry had a trip booked to Canada the following month, and they visited us in Victoria. When they returned the next year, LW and I were at the farm, so they landed in Edmonton, visited us in northern BC, and then stayed in our Victoria house for a couple of weeks. When Jesse graduated from high school and said he’d like to visit England, Jacqui and Garry hosted him, toured him royally, and took him to a football game he’ll never forget.
It turned out that Garry grew up on Brook Street, Longport, Stoke-on-Trent, a few doors down from my grandmother but a generation later. They knew the same places, walked the same streets, and spoke the same “Staffysher” dialect. But these are not the reasons I loved Garry. It was these:
- He could spin a story like nobody else, and make you laugh until it hurt, and then make you laugh more.
- On a hot summer’s day, he felt no compunction whatsoever about cooling his feet in a goldfish pond in Butchart’s Japanese garden.
- He taught me the meaning of a party piece and the value of always having one ready.
- Like many men of his background and generation, he learned an honest trade, but he wanted to be the captain of his own ship, so he went into business for himself and set his own course.
- He sailed his course with spirit, generosity, warmth, and humour.
Garry John Cooper died April 18, leaving those of us who loved him, most especially his beautiful Jacqui, to learn what it means to live with his absence.