Saturday, January 24, 2009


People are kind. Life can be complicated. This week brought reminders in both directions. We reached out to friends for help and ideas trying to find resources for the young person who may yet end up in our home for a while. Since she is currently some distance from us, that involved far-flung friends, who were absolutely amazing in their willingness to take time and energy to help someone they don’t know, have never met and was in a tough situation. Ken, in particular, took hours out of his day with no notice at all, trying to help us figure out what services might be available for a teenager on the loose in a large metropolitan area. He even offered to go pick her up and drive her from one location to another—at some distance from him—to help move things along. We are awed and humbled by this demonstration, in a long line of them, of people’s willingness to help and to grasp hands to form a safety net for others in need. The people we know are so good.

We were graphically reminded how much our kids rely on technology and how we inhabit a different world than they do when one of the challenges was that the young person was on the loose without a cellphone or computer. While she was perfectly competent to take a bus or the subway, finding pay phones at which she could contact us was a challenge, and since none of them have telephone books anymore, locating places and numbers was complicated. At one point, I was fretting about her traipsing around, and Michael pointed out that it wasn’t anything that either one of us would have found even the slightest bit complex at her age. That’s true, but both the world and the way we bring up kids has changed a lot since “our day.”

In the midst of all our activity, David Pogue wrote a column about learning to use Twitter. He wrote about how this didn’t come naturally to him as a person older than the usual tweeting demographic, and discussed its strengths in terms of seeking information and resources quickly among a wide group of people. The downside, of course, is yet another drain on time and energy and attention: it sounds like a high cost-benefit ratio, as is the case with many new endeavors. Each semester, reminders flow into my life about how the “younger generation” of college freshmen are moving on in the technology stream. Even so, while Ken and I were googling and calling agencies trying to dig up basic information (some of which was only available by speaking on ancient devices with actual human beings), the appeal of putting out a message of 140 characters to a large established group that might have included those with specialized knowledge—or connections to those having it—sure had an appealing tug.

As someone who has worked with computers and been surrounded by techno-geeks (some of my best friends are….) since 1974, it can be a little sobering now and then to get a glimpse into how “the kids” live. College freshmen (and law students and MBA students and medical students and…) are less connected to the technology in which my life is rooted (email) and more planted in zones less familiar and comfortable for “my generation.” Sending out an initial email to a class with information on the first class, every semester there are some non-responders who say on the first day “oh, I never read email. Couldn’t you have IMed?” Their lives include more virtual reality than is relevant to my life. While I have a Facebook account, I don’t use it for anything other than responding to friend requests (from the most unexpected of places, sometimes!) and checking out things to which students refer in their papers. This marks me old-fashioned, with one foot practically in the grave.

I don’t text much, in part because ATT, in its never-ending quest to serve me better, has some arcane problem with my account settings and I’ve never had the four or five additional hours it will likely take on the telephone to resolve the problem. Just before this medical adventure began, I got irritated and carved out a block of time to start working on the problem. Apple’s tech support was magnificent, going so far as to devote several hours of their support guy’s time as he stayed on the line with me while we were working on tracking down ATT’s problem with their phone support people. That included the apparently mandatory 30 minute wait before we actually got to talk to a human being, all through the standard triage asking us things like “is your device turned on?” before we got “escalated” to someone actually familiar with the problem that’s evidently seen a lot by the technical folks in both companies. Three-and-a-half hours into the exercise, I ran out of time and needed to go to a meeting. The next day, the tumor was diagnosed and I’ve never gotten back to it again. Texting still doesn’t work on my phone, even to those in our family group. (Kearney can send messages to me, but I cannot respond because ATT thinks she’s “not in my address book.”) I can see the appeal there, too. Maybe when Michael upgrades his phone…

This pales, however, with each semester’s experience showing the one movie in my negotiation curriculum, the original “Twelve Angry Men.” If you haven’t watched it lately, it’s well worth the time. The script was written by someone with deep insight into human behavior and it illustrates many of the findings of social psychology with tremendous power. Each semester, we end up having a conversation starkly demonstrating the gulf between today and my day. My favorite is the semester in which we had to stop and visit how yes, they used to be able to make movies in black and white. The student had never seen such a thing before (how is that possible?) and found it entrancing. I’ve taken to writing the name of Henry Fonda on the board and cautioning them, in their papers, that they can refer to him as such, as the “man in the white coat,” as the main character, but NOT as Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Peter Fonda or any of the other names they use for this stranger with whom they are not familiar. Every time, papers come in with yet another left-field moniker. Last semester, one paper called him Walter Cronkite. They do make me feel old sometimes; who ever thought I’d be in that boat, having been the youngest person in my surroundings since I started college and living on my own at 16?

Closing the circle of this week’s juxtapositions was the thank-you note from my sixth grade mentee (John prefers the word protégé, which I’m inching towards) on national “thank your mentor day.” She is a lovely, sweet young woman and we have a good time in our hour together each week. I scanned it to share. It’s national mentoring month. Do you have an hour a week to spend just being a reliable friend to a child out there? Can you find that hour? The research is clear that just showing up and being there consistently makes a big difference, the need is immense. Plus, it’s fun. Have a great weekend.

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