Technology and young people

Children-Using-Different-GadgetsAnother rant, this time about technology and what it does to our young people. Which is ironic, as I’m an avid, and grateful user of technology.

As a young journalist, in France, I worked in the newspaper which first introduced computers in its editorial office and trained writers to use them. That was in the early eighties, and the computers were ugly, bulky machines with black screens and green letters. Later, when I became a translator, I also worked for the first publishing house to use computers in France. Instead of printing out two copies of my manuscript, the way my other publishers requested me to do it, I would simply bring the large, black square floppy disk containing my finished assignment to the editor.  The computers were still enormous, the screen was still black, and the letters bright orange. And in the late nineties, when I lived in New York City, that same publisher was among the first to allow translators to email the completed manuscript as an attachment instead of mailing hard disks which were by then much smaller. The Internet also allowed me to forget about carting my hefty bilingual dictionary around. Research became so much easier. And then, in Nigeria, I discovered online writing communities; In India, online writing courses and blogging, and Facebook. It is hard to imagine life without all these medias, today.

Facebook allows me to keep in contact with people who live hundreds and thousands of miles away. It also keeps me informed. This is how I read most of my news. And even as I recognize the increasing Orwellian quality of our world , I can’t, nor do I wish to renounce the many advantages of being connected. But I’m an adult. A flawed adult, but an adult nevertheless. I have had time to develop a reasonably discerning, critical mind which allows me to recognize the dangers of technology. Also, as a dinosaur born half a century ago, my mind was shaped at a time when we actually read books from beginning till end, when we still knew how to sit and listen to entire pieces of music, to watch entire movies or TV shows. The world was not fragmented in bite size, pre-digested segments, movies could be slow, even contemplative. We could sit in a car, watch the world go by, and not whine about being bored only a few minutes into a journey. And if we did, no one gave us a DVD player, or a DS, or an i-Pad to keep us occupied. I remember trips from Paris to Malaga, in the south of Spain: 1800 Kms in a car, with usually one overnight stop in the middle, and what did we do? We sang songs in canon, told jokes, argued, or slept.

What about our young people today? Teenagers, and even pre-teens? What about these kids who seem to have mobile phones surgically attached to their hands, some of them not even 10 years old ? These kids who are requested to use computers for Homework, and work on their Maths, Sciences or English projects,  (or should I say try to) even as they have half a dozen or more applications running: Google chat, Skype, emails, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and all the other social networks, new ones, older ones that I discover every day (the last one,, allows you to ask other users questions, with the option of remaining anonymous, and it has been linked with cyber bullying  and several teenagers suicides in recent past.)

As a teen, when I was not in class, or doing homework, I could usually be found reading, playing my piano, day-dreaming or singing in my room. My family wasn’t into sports, which is not necessarily a good thing, but other kids my age might have been practicing a sport, or another instrument. When I was bored with Homework, I’d open the drawer under my desk, lay a novel there and read, quickly pushing the drawer close when I heard my parents coming down the corridor. After I turned 16, I was allowed to go to the movies with my friends.  I still remember  how Saturday Night Fever and Grease shook my world. I got the Grease record for my birthday, and listened to it over, and over, and over again. Oh, and we had one telephone with a rotary dial (a what?) and the curly cord plugged into a wall socket. All my parents had to worry about was my running huge phone bills when my best friend moved from Paris to a city north of the capital, and it only happened once. Mostly, we wrote each other 18-page letters. By hand. Of course, while working on this lengthy correspondence, I was not solving Maths problems, translating Latin texts, or memorizing German vocabulary lists. But at least, I was practicing a skill. What skill do kids practice, nowadays, when they exchange messages with truncated, acronymed groups of words? Certainly not spelling or syntax. Of course, I often use these abbreviated forms myself, nowadays, when texting. But I learned to spell words properly, first. Of course, with spell checkers, who needs to know how to spell, nowadays? And that makes me so sad.

How can parents possibly keep up with all the gadgets and Cyber distractions available? I almost feel as if I must do the rounds, each evening, to make sure that my teenager doesn’t stay on a smart phone, or an i-Pod, or an i-Pad, or her computer until 2 in the morning, texting with her friends or watching You Tube videos under the covers of her bed.

And let’s talk about You Tube. I love it. You Tube is fun. It’s great. It serves me the whole world onto a rectangular screen, from recipes, to dance steps, to TED talks, to TV shows I cannot watch where I live (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Bill Maher, yes, I love knowing I can find them any time I need a recreation). But our children, what does it give them? Most importantly, what does it do their brains, to constantly watch this barrage of over sexed music videos showing women in various states of undress contorting themselves on sandy beaches, the back seats of stretch Limos, or hanging from lianas in the jungles? And what about shows like the X Factor, that seem to promise the world to everyone, and make it look as if it’s easy, as if all you have to do is show up and sing and everyone goes berserk and claps and cries and screams adoringly! Or the way some singers are hailed as great singers, when in my opinion all they do is shout (anyone else out there wonders what the big deal is about Adèle?) Last year, our teen said she wanted to play the guitar. We bought her a guitar, we paid for guitar lessons (on top of the piano lessons, that was the condition), and after six months, she decided she no longer needed lessons, and would continue on her own. Of course, the guitar now sits on its stand, gathering dust. If you ask my daughter about the piano, which she also gave up a few months ago (we were in the middle of a move, and I didn’t have the energy to continue fighting that battle), she’ll tell you that she knows how to play and doesn’t need to take any more lessons. What can I do, when I hear that, but roll my eyes, bite my tongue, and chant internal mantras about adolescence being a normal, necessary phase in life, knowing I’m only good at the first one, and terrible at the other twos?

But I digress. Or do I?

One of my friends likes to claim that her children (slightly younger than mine, I’m waiting to see if she can keep it up) are not allowed any computer time, or barely. I respect that, and yet, find it an impractical solution. I don’t even think I could implement it in our house. Not with an IB school system that relies so heavily on technology, using the irrefutable argument that our children need to be able to function in tomorrow’s world – a world that no longer uses rotary-dial telephones or typewriters. Clearly, the way we educate our children today is, for the most part, on the verge of total obsolescence. I recognize that. I understand the value of introducing them to new languages like Internet coding. But how do we avoid the pitfalls as we negotiate the transition into this new era?

The school does try to educate them: they have talks and assemblies on Digital Citizenship. Facebook, and now, are banned from the school computers, on campus – but of course, most kids have their smart phones or tablets and access these networks via Wifi. And what about the time they don’t spend on campus?

At my request, my daughter now leaves the school laptop at school before she comes home at the end of the day.  If she or her sister need the computer to work on a school project, they save it to Drive, and use one of our home computers. I purchased two applications to help me control the time spent on the computer. If they need to do research, I run the Anti-Social application that automatically blocks Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network  of my choice, for the amount of time that I choose. If there is no research involved, I run Freedom, which blocks access to the Internet, again for a time chosen by the user. It helps. A little. So long as I’m there to launch the application. And too bad if it makes me feel like a police constable.

Have I turned into one of these conservative grumpy old farts who cannot tolerate the way the world changes before their eyes? Do I need to relax and trust that all will be well in the end? A friend of mine, who refuses to use Facebook, also says that she doesn’t want to know what her son (a few years older than my daughters) is up to, and if she used it, would not even consider being his friend on Facebook. What you don’t know cannot hurt you. Is this the way to go about it? Look the other way?

It’s like a massive tide, over powering, unavoidable. We can try our best to keep our children occupied in as sane a manner as possible (sports, music, travels), and continue to be self-appointed home police constables. Mostly, we can take a deep breath, ride that wave, and hope that our children will make it to the other side, safe and sound. With the understanding that while they ride that technological tsunami, they must also learn the skills to strive, and possibly succeed in this ever-more competitive world.


Pondering the virtues of chaos over the illusion of order

The reaction of many of our friends and relatives, usually those who have never lived outside their home country (and this is in no way meant as a negative judgment, simply an observation) when we told them that we were moving to Belgrade, was: “Oh, wonderful, Belgrade is Europe. This is going to change your life.”

It certainly has, in more ways than one. And as I’m still in the first transitional year, I have decided to refrain from trying to decide whether this is indeed a wonderful thing. But something happened, a couple of days ago, that had me reflect and come to this conclusion: if I must choose between one disorganized way or another, I’d rather go with the kind found in places like India or Bangladesh.

Of course, the following rant is colored by my current mood, a sort of confused and forgetful nostalgia where the many difficult moments spent in my last host country tend to blur and smudge even as the good times come into bright focus, effectively distorting my memory. No matter, a little rant from time to time keeps this brain’s cells working. So, here comes:

Before I even landed in Beograd, I somehow heard about the Serbian way of driving : fast, reckless, macho (although I’d like to add a twist to that one, because I have found women behind the wheel to often be as aggressive as men, here). I just laughed, responding that after driving in India 4 and half years, not much could phase me. I was also told that even though Serbia is requesting entry into the European Union, it retains enough quirks and idiosyncrasies to keep things interesting – a comment I found enormously reassuring.

So, I was quite surprised when I found out about the parking system in place. Cities are divided into zones, according to the number of hours we’re allowed to leave our car in the same area (one, two, or three hours). The parking spots have their colored markings, and signs planted at street corners indicate the zone and give a phone number. You SMS your plate number, and that’s it. Of course, I had not been told that you need to send an SMS for each hour that you’re allowed to park in a 2 or 3 hours zone, and I collected a ticket on my very first day. Neither had I been told that when you’ve collected a ticket, you are entitled to remain in that parking zone for 24 hours, and if you are to return to the same area before the 24 hours have expired, well, you may send as many SMSs as you want, they will not be validated. BUT, the second the 24 hours deadline expires, here you have an agent leaving a nice blue rectangular ticket on your windshield. You do receive an SMS warning you that your time is up, but as it is in Serbian, well, I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. So again, I learned the hard way. Five months later, and apart from one time when I totally forgot to send the SMS (I was late for a Flamenco class), and received another ticket (these parking attendants walk their assigned area with utmost zeal, I can vouch for that), I’d say I have pretty much mastered the parking system in Belgrade.

Then, the other evening, I was driving along the street, trying to park. Two empty cars sat on the side of the roadway, each in front of an empty parking spot, effectively blocking it and disturbing the traffic along that 3-lane avenue.IMG_2753 I slowed down, and pressed the horn, thinking they might come out of a shop, but nope, no such luck. I grumbled, drove around the block, twice, and eventually found a spot in a nearby street. I was still grumbling as I took pictures of both cars, thinking: “honestly, who would do that? Block a parking spot, not even bothering to enter said spot, and leaving the car on the road instead.” Then, I noticed two parking attendants. “Ha! they’re gonna get it,” I thought gleefully. Yeah, I can be vindictive, that way. Imagine my astonishment when both parking attendants walked past the cars, not even looking at them. If my Serbian were better, I might have run to them and started gesticulating, asking them why I get a parking ticket if I’m two minutes late sending my SMS, but they don’t give a ticket to these two people, even though they are so blatantly breaking the mighty laws of rational parking? Maybe it’s a good thing I still don’t speak Serbian.

IMG_2754In India or in Bangladesh, there are basically no road rules. Or rather, the mightiest road rules of all is: the biggest car gets priority. As for parking, anything – and everything – goes. It is absolute chaos, everyone knows that, and I, for one, find some semblance of order in that notion. What I find hard to deal with are places where some things obey a number of rigidly enforced rules and regulations, except for the times when they don’t, but when does the exception apply, well, that’s anybody’s guess.

Jet Lag through the ages – well, mine.

I’m Back in Dhaka, after a 2-month summer holiday that’s taken me to France, to the Dominican Republic, and back to Bangladesh by way of Paris, where we stopped for a few days in hopes of alleviating the effects of jet lag. Fat chance. I have not been able to fall asleep at night since we landed, three days ago, and at 4 am, this morning, my confused, exhausted mind began crafting this post.

In my twenties, when I first travelled far enough to cross a few time zones, Jet Lag had a delicious, exotic quality. It meant that I had become a globe trotter. I was young, full of energy, and even as someone who’s always needed a lot of sleep, skipping a night was not worth even a passing thought.

At 30, I moved to New York City, and for a few years, I went back and forth between France and the US. Jet Lag was still exciting, still something I could negotiate without pain, but I did start to notice some patterns. It was easier to travel from France back to the US than it was to fly the other way, for instance. Going West simply meant that I’d wake up very early for a few days. Going East, well, it would take me a day or two to adjust.

In my late thirties, I became a mother. Oh boy! From one day to the other, sleep became a mirage, something elusive that you desperately long for. During the first few months, until our daughter slept at least five hours through the night, I basically stumbled about life – the perfect Zombie Mama. Taking my baby daughter to France for three weeks when she was only two months old did not help her to settle into a sleeping routine, of course. And then, we moved from New York City to Nigeria. Thankfully, our little one quickly developed the rare ability of adjusting her sleep to the needs of our schedule. Did we go to bed at 10 or 11 PM for some reason? She’d conveniently sleep until 10 or 11 AM the following morning. Not always. But all things considered, pretty often.

Then, came our second daughter, born in New York City, between our appointment in Nigeria and our new posting in India. The first few weeks in the US were slightly easier than the beginnings with our first baby because my mother, who’d come to help, this time, took the 5 AM shift. Still, when the little one turned six weeks old and we had to fly to Hyderabad, ten time zones away, the combination of postpartum hormones, accumulated fatigue, and the usual stresses linked with moving meant that I cried the entire day. I cried as I showered, and frantically packed suitcases. I cried behind my sunglasses as the taxi took us to the airport. I cried some more when we were checking in, and I had to rush to the toilet because  my periods had chosen that moment to return. I was still crying in the plane as it took off, and I continued to cry until we were way over the Atlantic ocean. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go to India. I just didn’t want to leave Brooklyn, not right then. We landed in Hyderabad around midnight, local time, exhausted beyond words, but proud that both our daughters, the 4-year-old, and the 6 weeks old, had behaved impeccably throughout the whole journey. We crashed in our hotel room, and I remember that our baby was sleeping on the bed, beside me. When I woke up, six hours had passed, and the baby was still sleeping! She’d just slept through her first night. I always attributed this little miracle to the fact that we had changed time zone and day had turned into night. A good consequence of Jet Lag.

Well, I’d entered my forties, by then, and our second daughter turned out to be quite different from her sister. She does not need a lot of sleep, and she’s not very good with Jet Lag. She’s now eight years old, and she’s spent the last three nights wide awake, and determined not to be left alone. She keeps barging into our bedroom, declaring that she has nothing to do. When it is 3 AM, and all you wish is to melt into Morpheus’ slippery embrace, having such an imperious little person around is pretty hard on your frazzled nerves. Fortunately, school started again, this morning, and she had to get up at 7 AM. I’m counting on sheer exhaustion to take care of her Jet Lag – and hopefully, mine, too. But as I prepare to exit my forties, I hereby declare that Jet Lag is no longer fun or exotic. It is a pain.

The end of the world, my foot !

Blogging has again been pushed to the back burner – by necessity, not choice. I have so many ideas, at least three posts in my draft boxes at various stages of completion, but too many obligations to attend to, first : looming work deadline, children’s homework (I do need to write a series of posts about our experiences dealing with international schools, some day. So much to say!), end of school year’s flurry of activities and events. AND a system that requires a minimum of eight hours of sleep at night in order to function. My writing, whether it’s working on my novel, picture books, or blogging, cannot compete… and it does not make me happy.

But I digress.

I have been reading about the end of the world for a few days, mostly smiling (in a slightly deprecating manner), with some rolling of the eyes, basically waiting for May 21 to run its course, for all the silliness to die, and for life to go on without any more undue attention paid to such nonsense.

That is, until one of our nieces, a bright, spunky, opinionated teenager, sent us a message last night, inquiring about the possible return of Jesus. She had smartly figured out that we are ten hours ahead of the Western world, and therefore, if all this talk of “Rapture” and what not was to be believed, we should have seen some manifestation of it.

This is where I stop smiling, and start getting irritated. Very. Irritated. What is this world – a world which is not ending, as far as I know, nor receiving the visit of Jesus (although I believe I saw something recently about some people in New Zealand, was it, pretending to be Jesus) – to do about all the self-professed in-the-known nuts, out there, who think they can spread apocalyptic messages… for what? Assuage their neurotic anxieties by getting others to share them so they don’t feel so alone? Get a power kick out of playing with the minds of impressionable people? Their fifteen minutes (or days, or weeks, maybe even months and years, in some cases) of celebrity?

Des claques, as we say in French. And a few well-aimed coups de pied aux fesses, too. But even that feels too lenient for all the ruckus these people create.