I LEAVE THE recycling point in the park with my hands full. The green and yellow public bins there are stuffed to overflowing, and, since I’m hoping to congratulate myself later, I don’t pitch my recyclables into the nearby park trash, but instead choose to haul a week’s worth of discarded glass and plastic back home to try again another time.
As I lug, I get a text. It’s from my daughter, who’s up in our apartment, supposedly finishing homework.
Justin Bieber I’ll give it a
night of sleep in a while
on the other side of Paris
for his career at this stage
he wants to say something
from someone that has
happened at this moment
for two days before you start
talking with it will have
access control in this country.
My daughter’s use of her cell phone, purchased for her first year of middle school, has been mostly sensible. Her texts to me are typically a careful imitation of a responsible adult. It’s part of a mounting independence that also includes being left alone in the house with her sister on nights when her mother is working late, while I walk the dog and take out the recycling.
But this message starting with Justin Bieber doesn’t sound like her, or anyone I know, at all. Has someone hacked into her phone? Is she training for a career as a professional spammer when she grows up? Did The Singularity just happen and technological intelligence has at last achieved dominance over humans, starting with my daughter? Or rather is she simply a genius who’s invented a new art form of the poetic absurd? I hang onto the dream of the last one, but panic creeps in. Something beyond my imagination could be wrong. I try, nonetheless, to imagine. I break into a run, still toting the recycling while also tugging on my dog’s leash.
Before we can pick up the pace, a group of tourists pour from a charter bus by the park’s entrance. Several of them crouch to take a picture, calling to my dog in what I guess is Mandarin Chinese. I envision the first slide in a photo album titled, in characters, “Dijon, France Fall 2014.” Here we have what appears to be a hapless Frenchman- probably homeless based on the bottles- muttering commands to his dog in American English. Smile.
I don’t have time to disavow the tourists of anything. All I know is I’ve got to get back to the apartment. My daughter may be the unwitting pawn in an elaborate text identity heist.
I reach our apartment building, skip every other three steps up the three flights of spiral staircase and enter the apartment.
It’s my younger daughter who greets me first. She has another problem altogether: mean clowns. Her friends told her stories (unfortunately true) of clowns attacking people across France. I tell her I’ll explain more in a second and rush to my older daughter’s room, where she’s at the desk hunched over her phone, tapping away.
“Did you send me a text?” I ask immediately.
“You didn’t write back to me!” she responds, not looking up.
I inspect the screen up close. She is frantically thumbing out another message, not composing exactly just selecting the first word from the bar of suggestions that her smartphone provides. She hits the letter b and, from a list of bring – Bieber – birthday – be – boring – because – been, she selects because.
Because they have been going
since yesterday they were going
with my grandmother and grandfather
to sleep they don’t know
like him and he will not get up
The message isn’t so important, just the speed at which it’s written. It’s hard to figure how much of the creative process is arbitrary, on her part or the phone’s. She taps a globe icon to switch the language back to Français.
“Aren’t you supposed to be finishing your homework?” I ask.
“I did already. It was easy.”
“What about your Geography test tomorrow?”
“Daddy,” she puts down the phone to look up at me. “Don’t stress out.”
Our news must be awful. Lead stories have journalists and aid workers beheaded by spectacle-savvy monsters. In the U.S., police officers are not indicted for the murder of unarmed citizens while the CIA lies about its torture program. School and university shooting sprees show up as fleeting news items on our feeds, but only if the body count is fairly high. Around the world, reports say that consumption has reached the point that we now face a potential shortage of—in addition to hundreds of other depleted resources— sand. A beach may become a rarity. Plus, Walmart on Black Friday. Plus, socio-economic diminishing returns. Plus, Facebook generally fucking with our brains. Plus, ice sheets melting forever into a more acidic sea that will soon swallow Miami, Holland and large swaths of south Asia because 2014 has been the hottest year on record. Plus, people 10 percent more likely to act like douches in 2015, and 20 percent more likely to call someone out for being a douche. Plus, computers having human-level intelligence by 2030. Plus, the glut and availability of statistics making numbers everywhere seem somehow less reliable. In France, everyone loathes their President almost as much as Americans seem to loathe theirs. The République is dealing with its recent sadistic clown incidents but also a roiling mass of indecision and backpedaling from its heads of state, the gaining momentum of the reactionary extreme right party, an uptick in police brutality and counter-demonstrations that have led to fires and window-smashing in several cities including Dijon, my wife’s hometown where we’ve plunked down our family. In our apartment near the historic gate to the city, where visitors come from continents away and sidewalks are too narrow for recycling collection, we’re soon to welcome a teenager.
I don’t know where we go from here. Something could be near.
“It’s takes a lot of guts to raise a child in our world today,” a senior-aged friend told me recently. These are the warnings I hear with increasing frequency, whether directed toward me personally or to the world at large. With specific regards to my pre-teen daughter, friends and family of all ages offer dark premonitions. Sometimes these are vague, along the lines of “The next few years will be…interesting” or simply “Good luck.” Other times they come as harbingers gift-wrapped with a compliment, “Gee, she’s beautiful. I don’t envy you,” or simple hopeless pity, “Hang in there.”
It’s the kind of dread that rarely surrounds a growing boy. A girl sets off alarms. Her stabs at independence induce wincing. But gender aside, the new generation’s initial shaping of identity can only spell trouble. We’ve all gone through it, but nowadays everything moves faster, arrives more complicated and will almost certainly involve lewd selfies at some point. But the key takeaway for any parent should be the portent of trauma.
I see the fear of teenagers mirrored in the hell-in-handbasket worldview we’re so quick to share online or seemingly whenever conversations move beyond small talk. Another friend recently told me a joke defining the optimist in our time as someone who, while falling over a cliff, sees the rock face rushing past as he plummets and says to himself “So far, so good.”
I’m capable of being a decent cynic. The thought occurs to me that whatever stress or worry I’ve allowed myself to entertain could be the country I’m living in, which has never been so comfortable with optimism, or the social networks I can’t stay away from, which appear more collectively bleak the more positive its individual users attempt to be. It’s also possible I’m getting older. After all, as a committed stay-at-home father, I’m not long for my job.
But for now, amidst the wide selection of worst-case scenarios, my family has been having fun. We are well, with the standard household emotional flare-ups and intramural miscommunications, but truly, overall, wonderful.
During the day after the war
the time in the first place to
live with it is not the same thing
as saying goodbye when you
get a new song.
I’m not sure if I should be disconcerted by my daughter’s texts. No parenting guidebook or user manual mentioned the likes of this. So I tell her to send me more. I enjoy the nonsense wordplay. Something strange and smart may be afoot with her brain and her phone, but it probably isn’t identity theft or an artificial intelligence societal upheaval. The outcome might be okay. I can trust her. I will.
Now if I only had an answer for my younger daughter about the violence of clowns.
“Am I catching you at a bad time?” a friend from the U.S. wonders over the phone.
“I was about to ask you the same question,” I say, a response that doesn’t make sense; she’s the one who called. But my friend catches my drift, whichever way I’m drifting.
“I know. There’s never a good time,” she adds.
This time of ours may look bad or else we’ve just so thoroughly convinced ourselves that it does. Beyond the news, a fresh big-budget theatrical release outlines the end of humanity for us almost every month (last month we expired in Interstellar). There is also literature, where I usually land. Some of the better recent novels of this year wrestle with the questions of our hopeless outlook by cutting it with humor.
The teenage narrator in Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California takes a road trip west because her father is convinced the end of the world is nigh. Her family listens to a Christian radio station in the car and she comments, “The end times seemed to be all that was left to talk about.” Down their highway, more souls go unsaved.
Ben Lerner’s new novel, 10:04, unpacks our contemporary tendency to erase our own psychic futures. Notions of the end swirl from all corners—the doctor’s office, the art museum, the weather forecast. But it’s an image of the narrator’s friend as she smokes that sticks with me. He describes the little shower of embers as his friend stubs her cigarette out on the brick wall on a fire escape. Later he sends a text to her that contains the same line: the little shower of embers.
I hold onto this meta-detail amid the heavier stuff.
The next day, I finish Lerner’s book and I drag the recycling out again. The bins in the park have been emptied. I take care of our detritus. I’ve done one incredibly tiny deed that I chose to believe is upstanding and significant. I indulge a self-congratulations without irony. But I’ll need to follow through to see if any other efforts matter. More tourists visit again that day, their iPads imitating an analog camera shutter sound as they search for a piece of the planet which could meet their dreams of a rosier place. This eastern French town may do the trick, despite not one, but two, Subway sandwich shops on the street leading to the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy and the unexpected warm weather.
As I reach our building, slowly this time, I stop to look up at our household, the two windows with the lights on, the two embers glowing by the night.
The years the time to be a great day
for the next day they have been
on the way to an old woman she
got me feeling of having to make
a decision on whether you believe
they were this today or be an
My daughter’s dancing thumbs spin out more original texts like this. Then she toggles back to messages with friends in emojis and French acronyms. Her experiments writing poetry in tandem with her phone are done for now. I, however, could spend weeks, years reading too much into them. These mysterious incantations boil down to the fact that changes around me lie forever one step beyond my understanding. I will remain here not possessing a full grasp of what they portend, an end or a beginning, a personal anomaly or a clue to a universal pattern.
As I try to document the moment, to protect our space and the little bodies in it, I only know that we need a stronger imagination. We’ve played our paranoid ones out by now. Because if we stop reaching for new, wider ideas, we may never realize that, all this time, we made the mistake of resigning ourselves to a future we thought we could predict.