Dear Lily June,
Your dad and I have old phones. Like, really old phones. How old are they?
- Dinosaurs used them for selfies, but couldn’t find the as-yet-uninvented anti-asteroid filter, so they died. Cave men painted our cell phones on walls.
- The stones of Easter Island aren’t as hardy–or as old–as the bricks your dad and I carry around, barely capable of taking photos and about as capable as a blind Amish octogenarian with no thumbs of surfing the internet.
- They were old enough, in fact, that your dad, when he had to replace his, was able to do so for a dollar, Lily. One hundred pennies. Think about that.
We don’t plan on getting new phones anytime soon, either, in part because we’re just not modern phone people. We know how to settle in to the old-fashioned pleasures, like cuddling together as a family on the couch, parked in front of a laptop streaming Doctor Who over Netflix. You know, like the pioneers used to do. Though how they dealt with the old-school buffering issues in their Conestoga wagons, I’ll never know. “And thank God, ultimately, I have this blog, my electronic letters to you, in which to bemoan the failings of technology,” your mother writes. With almost no sense of irony.
I’ve been thinking a lot about screen time lately, because it seems almost all of my technology has been warning me against itself. I mean that literally. In my email yesterday, I read an article about how most pediatricians recommend no screen time before the age of 2. And your dad and I kind of stuck to that with you. Kind of.
We don’t have cable, for instance, so televisions are not the issue. What we do have are our laptops, which illuminate the dark livingroom of the one bedroom apartment in which we spend most of our days with you, and which constantly scroll a stream of pictures we’ve taken of you while you point at them and burble adorably.
In fact, you’ve been a bit obsessed with these selfies, which, no matter how much I try to correct you, you insist all contain “Da-Da.” Pictures of you are Da-Da. Pictures of me are Da-Da. Pictures of Da-Da are Da-Da. A picture of a Pittsburgh Primanti Brothers sandwich is Da-Da. You get the idea.
But the more time you and I spend parked in front of that screen–and because I’ve lately been suffering a major pain flare from my IC amongst other things, we’ve been spending a LOT of time seated with me just talking to you and the screen illuminating our faces–the more I start to worry that you’ll become, as so much of society is today, addicted to yourself and your selfies.
And in that, I fear you’ll become like the self-aware pleading TV in Todd Alcott’s spoken-word poem “Television” who begs everyone in the room, “Look at me. Look at me, look at ME, LOOK at me.”
Like my cell phone, I, too, am getting old–not quite ancient enough to remember the invention of the wheel, but certainly old enough to have laughed at the creation of the “selfie stick.” And then I found out it was a real thing, and I wasn’t laughing. I was croffing (cry-scoffing). Hash Tag Watch Me Weep.
And the culture’s self-obsession has only been getting scarier to me. In mockery of a year-old trend (so old, it was practically dead) at the time, I had your Dad make a meme of us the moment you were born to post on Facebook. To explain it, you need to know that Beyonce, singer and media icon at the time, spawned the movement with her lyrics,
“We flawless, ladies, tell ’em / I woke up like this / I woke up like this.”
In a backlash that was as clever as it was feminist, women started posting pictures of themselves at their early morning scruffiest–no make-up, no coiffing, nothing, with the hash tag, #IwokeuplikethisFlawless. I actually liked the idea until I saw more and more photos intentionally made to look as if they were undone or done down but still kept the photographee looking pretty pretty pretty.
And when I had “friends” on Facebook posting post-delivery photos of themselves holding their beautiful but reddish, still-squished-a-bit babies while they, themselves, looked like the hospital had its own hair & makeup crew in the next room, I wanted to send my own message. And thus, hair unbrushed, fresh from the surgical theatre without a stitch or touch of makeup after I’d been laying in a hospital having contractions for 48 hours, is one of my favorite “selfies” of you and me, even though I look, by all contemporary internet standards, “hideous”:
I leave that photo, Lily, untouched and uncensored, even as I put it on the world wide weberverse because, look at my face, honey. #LookAtThatLove. I am a tired, horrible mess who is THRILLED BEYOND BELIEF to be your mother. That, to me, Lily, is beauty, even when I’d no sooner use that word to describe myself than I’d, as some kind of Feminist Beauty Grinch, carve the Who’s roast beast.
It makes me like, and question, and like again the movement Dove spearheaded a few months ago in the UK, #NoLikesNeeded. I’ve included an article about it in the link, but the movement’s premise is that we’ve recently put too much stock in others’ awareness and approval of our very own faces. A picture may say a thousand words, Lily, but most of them lately just plead, “Please Like Me.”
The truth is, the like you earn from a picture you post on the internet is only a like of your physical image. Not all those who click “like” truly know you, even if you title the photo “soul.jpg.” I want you to want more than superficial groupthink. I want you to know your self-love should way outweigh your selfie esteem. Also, I want you not to want a smart phone or tablet before you turn sixteen. Will I make you a social pariah like that? #Hopefully.
But seriously, your generation will be born into a game whose rules have already been set before you entered. I at least got to see the game board laid down, so I could opt to hold or roll my die at will. I know that the name on the game board’s box is not Reality. And I want you to see the same.
You are more than your body. You’re more than a persona, the mask you put on to meet the faces that you (virtually) meet. You’re more than a username and a password. You are more rich and interesting and complex and complicated than your internet identity.
And if all that’s not enough to convince you, consider Joshua Burwell, who was the same age as your dad when he died, and only two years older than me. In all probability given eyewitness testimony, Mr. Burwell was using his cell phone or camera–whatever electronic device it may have been–to take photos of a beautiful ocean landscape, spreading out under a 40-60 foot cliff in San Diego. He had a son at home in Indiana he may have been planning to send the pictures to, and as your mother, that hits home because, by another roll of the dice, it might have been me and you.
Seeing his device and not where the cliff ledge ended, Burwell slipped off the edge and plummeted to his death. And that image of the ocean he wanted to share with loved ones and friends–what might his future have been like if he’d only, later, tried to describe it? If his eyes had filled up with tears and excitement as he declared, “I can’t do it justice. You just have to go there and see it.”
I don’t hold Burwell up as a target for scorn or ridicule. I see his loss as a brutal and heartbreaking tragedy. And his story reminds us that, when it comes to the experiences we try so desperately to capture with our phones and cameras–to preserve forever–we can’t forget while we’re looking at them to actually live them. And no one’s likes matter more than our own opinions and our own memories.
- “No selfie sticks sign, Museum of Brisbane, 2015” by Kerry Raymond. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:No_selfie_sticks_sign,_Museum_of_Brisbane,_2015.jpg#/media/File:No_selfie_sticks_sign,_Museum_of_Brisbane,_2015.jpg
- “Mobile phone evolution” by Anders. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mobile_phone_evolution.jpg#/media/File:Mobile_phone_evolution.jpg
- “Primanti Bros at PNC Park” by Adam Stone from Fort Worth, TX, USA – Pittsburger1. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Primanti_Bros_at_PNC_Park.jpg#/media/File:Primanti_Bros_at_PNC_Park.jpg