Silent night, electronic nights
We played board games; we chased each other around the house; perhaps we listened to music in the background; we talked; we made each other laugh; we teased each other; we made messes in the kitchen; we yelled from time to time -- we were vocal.
We also hugged one another, kissed everyone good-night. We got one another's attention without waving frantically to relatives with iPods glued to their ears.
That was then; this is now. In Maine at my cousin's house, his 10-year-old got a Wii (whatever that is) with sports pack. Now she can stand in front of the TV and pretend to play tennis with an electronic opponent. On the bright side, this masterpiece requires physical exertion beyond the overuse of her thumbs.
Last year her brother got a GameCube, or an X-box, or whatever $400+ video game was in demand. It, too, required a TV set for use.
This year, the brother got a computer video game that I understand some adults are obsessed with: World of Witchcraft. Or is that Warcraft? In either case, I didn't know quite what to make of his play date: a neighbor came over and played video games on the downstairs TV, while my 13-year-old cousin busied himself at the computer.
Apparently it is enough for teenagers to be in the same room. Conversation is optional. (Last summer a strong silence emanated from the basement playroom when the four boys had to cease their video game due to a power failure.)
Between cell phones, email, and Crackberries, it is entirely possible for adults to share the same disconnection. The late Ma Bell's slogan was "reach out and touch someone."
No, she didn't mean in the same room, unless your house was equipped with two phone lines and two people too lazy to walk across the living room into the kitchen. She did, however, profit mightily from two people speaking to each other.
Remember, speech? A form of verbally conveying your thoughts to the person toward whom they were intended? Who knew that conversation would become such a multidimensional form of communication, one almost antiquated now, unless you possess the ability to convey tone and mood with words alone, something that was once considered the province of writers, people who could express themselves on a page.
Text messaging has replaced telephoning for the younger segment of society. Great, now they not only won't be able to convey subtleties of meaning; they won't be able to spell either. What kind of relationships will these kids grow up to have? Their expectations won't be anything like the ones of generations preceding them.
This Christmas, three generations gathered around the electronic hearth, watching DVDs deemed acceptable for the youngest. We were seven people, sitting in the family room.
The only audible dialogue, if I'm feeling generous with my definition, in an action movie where car chases, impossible leaps from rooftop to rooftop, and blowing up cars, people, and whatever else special effects can demolish, was barely comprehensible.
The other video stream (straight from the cable TV) came solely from the Disney Channel. No news or shows that depict adults interacting with one another, not even on a game show, made the cut. I saw High School Musical. As if any 21st -- or 20th -- century high school remotely resembled the idiocy displayed in that gem.
You want to show me high school? Give me Fame any day. Give me Grease. Let Mickey & Judy put on a show. I'd even take Beverly Hills 90210 -- anything not directed at the "tweenager," a marketing demographic that sounds as pathetic as the products it generates.
Seven people, eating dinner around the TV set: the grandparents, parents, children, and I, the sole cousin. Did that count as quality time? Is that what happens when two parents think they don't have enough time to spend with their children? What kind of holiday memories -- of shared experience -- will that scenario generate?
The children ignored their grandparents in favor of any and everything electronic. I'm sure we were more interested in our presents than in our grandparents, but they could interact with us. How do they compete with all the gadgets under the tree today?
How will stories of generations gone be relayed to generations present? There's no space on a text-message screen to explain "why." Email leaves so many shades of emotion out of the realm of existence.
All that aside, my cousin's family welcomes me every Christmas, and they understand why I refuse holidays with my mother, she who chased after the waiter into the restaurant kitchen, she of the expletive scrawled in ballpoint pen on a Frette linen tablecloth on Christmas eve.
I don't see family life, suburban strain, in all its hues very frequently. Perhaps what I question about electronic proliferation and means of communication is simply due how odd it seems to the reluctant technologist that I am.
Still, I folded laundry, chatted with my cousin's in-laws, decorated two Christmas trees, wrapped children's gifts until close to 4 am Christmas eve, attempting to get out of bed on less than 6 hours of sleep. I'm not cut out for that life full-time, but in its own way, it is my cousin's family's best gift to me.