Saturday, July 30, 2011


When my brothers and I were kids, we went off to a sleepaway camp in Maine [right] for eight weeks. And we were away.

Sure, I would write letters home  -- more often than many kids who only did so on nights they had to hand over a letter to gain entry to the dining hall.

And my mom wrote me back, envelopes stuffed with Times clippings and Mets gossip. My parents would drive up at the four-week mark  for visiting day to put faces to the names of  my counselors and bunkmates.

But I don't think I spoke to them on the phone more than once a summer, and they really had no idea what my day-to-day life was. (This was only somewhat less true during the school year when I lived with them.)

That isn't quite the case nowadays. Though my daughters are "away," I feel quite apprised of what's going on. And, in the age of helicopter parenting and TMI,  I don't know whether that's a good thing or not.

First, today's sessions are shorter -- three or four weeks instead of eight -- in part due to our accelerated pace of life, but also because of how expensive camp has gotten. So it barely feels like any time elapses between putting them on the bus and getting them back.

During their stay, the camps do their noble best to cocoon the kids: cell phones are forbidden, the Internet is not accessible. Calls from home are limited to once a week.

That blackout is pretty novel in a world where I can be shopping in Portsmouth and send comparative photos with my phone to my girlfriend in Colorado to get her opinion. Or where my friend traveling solo in Vietnam this summer has been so good about posting photos and videos of her trip and Skyping to the point I feel I have more contact with her across the globe than I do when she's home in the East Village.

But despite the camp's ban, technology is a two-way street, and while campers are blissfully  offline, the camp has proved as active a correspondent as my friend in Hanoi.

When I was a camper, my parents were sent a souvenir folder with two 5x7s -- a formal portrait (like those above) paired with a shot of all the kids in my bunk that year. I don't know if we even got it till school had already started back up.

But in the 21st century camps send out frequent email updates and maintain websites with daily blog posts and hundreds of photos that parents can access and download. The picture atop this post, for instance, I pulled from the camp website, of my 13-year-old  hugging a friend.  A private moment, made public.

The first few days of camp  I went to the website to check on my daughters' arrival. But then I let it slide, partly because it's laborious to scan the images for ones of  your own kids, but it also felt slightly creepy: There were pictures of meals, dances, trips. I felt like I was spying on their private time.

Since the kids are in the Facebook generation, I am sure the are happy to have all this documentation and public display. But I didn't want to spoil hearing about these experiences from them, and wanted them to tell me what they chose to, instead of having me monitoring them like a security camera.

Another reason I was glad I didn't keep checking in, was eventually the camp posted photos of sets and rehearsals [left] of shows, which would have lessened my enjoyment when I drove up to sit in the live audience for the performances.

In terms of my communicating with them, I no longer had to rely on the vicissitudes of the US Postal Service. I could simply email the camp and they'd print it out. But the girls only wrote me back once, partly, I think, because they are so used to texting and emailing that the writing of a letter seems like churning your own butter.

What is the effect on the girls of being the online generation forced to go offline? I found out when my 13-year-old had a 24-hour hiatus before the start of a second session of theater camp and I  took her off-campus.

Besides tastes of non-camp food and shopping, I also gave her some access to the Internet -- her BlackBerry was allowed out of lockup, and I lent her my laptop so she could update her Facebook and Tumblr pages.

Here's what struck me. She'd been out of touch with her best friend back in New York for three weeks. So what did she do? Text her --  incessantly.

"Call her!" I said. "Nah, that's okay," she said. This is the weird dichotomy of today's technology: we are more in touch but not as connected.

My 17-year-old, who is heading into her senior year of high school, instead of staying at camp, headed off to a city to take a two-week pre-college arts course. She got her phone and Internet back and after we talked on her first day, I swore to myself to just let her be and not monitor her experience.

But -- unprompted -- she has been sending me photos of the building where her class meets and the campus, and has been texting and emailing and calling.

I realized I like that she feels I am there for her, in ways I didn't always feel my parents were there for me.  And her communications don't seem like dependence, just sharing.

But I also wonder how altered my relationship would have been with them - -and what it would have meant for my development -- if, when, say, I'd been  backpacking in Europe after college, I'd had this walkie-talkie-with-camera connectivity instead of just  exploring the world.

I know my mom probably would have liked it. But feeling away is a precious thing.


Jim Watt said...

HI David:

This IS a thoughtful post; I'm not sure why being 'away' is a good thing (not only for kids, but for us all) but I do think it is. I guess what's most important is not so much being inaccessible as it is being free to listen to yourself without feedback. We all think too much about what people think and spend too much time trying to manage what they think about us. And, of course, the more we talk and post and phone, the less of us there is for them to think about. I remember moments at the Mother Conference at Kieve with various people; not the content of the moments but the emotional and spiritual PRESENCE that we shared. I have gone from fantasizing sneaking into a person's cabin to smother them to death because I was SO put off by them --and then, after hearing them and realizing how brave they are and what they are ACTUALLY handling, coming to value them way more than people I have known for years! And this has zero to do with texting or telephone talk or phtographs. So, I guess what I'm saying is that without time to yourself you don't actually HAVE any memories to share. And what memories you DO want to share, you don't want wandering around on the internet. So does any of this make any sense?


Anonymous said...

Love this post David! As the friend probably telling you more about my experience of Southeast Asia than of the Lower East Side, I've been having many of these same thoughts about being 'away.' I've found it remarkably therapeutic and feel, as I hope your girls do, that it's nice to be able to choose when and what to share and to have options about the medium when I'm in the mood. Seventy days is a long time not to talk to anyone. I've updated a select group of friends via email because I've enjoyed it and had plenty of time, but have posted little on facebook and, gasp!, deleted my facebook account the other night. I've found that the sharing hasn't impinged on my sense of 'away' but that I want to be selective about whom to share with and at what pace in order to protect it. I feel the public, online, connected pendulum swinging the other way but I wonder if your kids' generation knows the difference. (A poster in a coffeeshop in Bangkok read: Google knows what you did last summer) To tell you about my adventure is to reward, I hope, and include someone I know whereas to tell everyone I'm 'friends' with is merely to brag in this weird way that doesn't contribute to a real relationship. That's why I think it's great that your older daughter used her cellphone to banter with one friend, someone she actually knows, and misses rather than to give away her experience to the hive.

David Handelman said...

Yes Jim, it makes sense, though I wasn't thinking about murder. Modern life doesn't give much time (or value) to repose, and I'm sure that's why your annual retreats to your own grown-up camp are so valuable. A group dynamic away from it all.

And Anonymous, selectivity is also one of those things that is harder to maintain. I am trying to get the most eyeballs for my blog even though some of the posts are about celebrity, some are about journalism and some are about child-rearing. So I have to cast a wide net (and thus friend people on FB who I don't even know). Your missives are less worried about audience I bet.

Betsy Abernathy said...

I had many similar thoughts when I took my Girl Scout troop (9 8th graders) to NYC last year.
I didn't "outlaw" cell phones as parents were nervous enough just letting their kids go to New York, although they weren't allowed to use them when we were out and about in the city.
I don't know how much any of the kids called/texted home. But it was hard to miss the large amount of texting with boys, friends at home, etc., when we were back in the apartment where we were staying. There wasn't anything wrong with it, but it struck me forcibly that they weren't really "away."
I, like you, remember the feeling of being away--you saved up experiences and stories and knew your family would be eager (or pretend to be eager?) to hear everything when you were reunited. Maybe sometimes you missed your parents/friends at home but that was also part of the experience. This trip to New York was not like that for the girls. What was to miss?
Not to digress, but another interesting phenomenon I witnessed was the over-photographing trend. One of the girls in my troop proudly told me after our visit to the Met that she had taken more than 250 pictures. She had gone through the museum behind her little digital camera.
And related to that--on the Circle Line tour, I watched almost the whole boatload of tourists from all over the world lift their cameras up as we passed the Statue of Liberty and photograph her continuously until we were past (which took 5 or 10 minutes). While of course I understand wanting a few good pictures of her (although I'm of the "buy a postcard, it'll be a better picture anyway" camp) I felt like these people--my Girl Scouts included--were missing the experience of actually SEEING her--just sitting there and looking at this incredible monument. I was running around telling them about Emma Lazurus, etc., and they weren't really interested; they wanted to take 45 pictures, all with someone else's hair in the way. :-/