When I lived in the US, I would call my mom and dad while I was walking around New York. “Okay,” I would say, when either answered the phone. “I have roughly four and a half minutes to catch up before going underground on the subway.” This was our main form of communication: in those four and a half minutes, we talked (quickly) about the highlight reel of our lives to the background music of ambulances wailing, cashiers expectantly demanding money from me, and various homeless people proffering marriage proposals (needless to say, I lived in a great neighborhood). Peppering these primary conversations were the little moments when, despite Google and Facebook iPad apps and the myriad ways we can acquire information in the modern world, I just wanted parental input. “How long can you keep leftovers in the fridge?” I’d ask my dad, staring at spaghetti that seemed to have self-generated a green and fuzzy pesto like topping (self-generating sauces: the food of the future!). “What day is the cheapest to buy flights again?” I’d ask my mom, squinting at my computer screen. While Bing may have had a more accurate answer, my mom’s was the most trusted one.
Since moving to London, my parental conversations have moved to the land of Skype, a world where calls are announced by a strange symphony of beeps and dials; where faces pixelate in and out of the picture; where half the time spent talking to my parents, complete Skype neophytes, is spent saying, “Click the video button. The one with the camera. If you can’t see yourself, I can’t see you. Hold the camera higher – higher – dear Lord, please don’t show me your chest again.”
Several things have happened in the switch to Skype; the most perhaps obvious of which is that parents, surprise surprise, love seeing their children’s faces. All conversations open and close with, “You’re looking so healthy!” and “What shirt are you wearing?” and “How did you cheeks get so pink?” and other variations of: keep on keepin’ on, my DNA-totin’ progeny.
Below the rosy skin and the same shirt I’m always wearing (come on, Mom!) there’s a different, more fundamental shift in the nature of the conversations. We talk less often, certainly, but when we do, the conversation has an unprecedented level of focus. You choose a time and date and make a plan, rather than a slapdash time filler. You are, quite literally, staring into each other’s eyes (save for the moments when – and you know who are – you’re looking deeply into the eyes of yourself). You’re freed from distraction, less the person on the other end catch a glimpse of what you’re doing and squawk, their annoyance transcending thousands of miles, “Are you doing something else?”
It makes for some of the most focused conversations I’ve ever had. Conversations that quickly blow past the day-to-day trivialities that fill a quickie check in; conversations that move into the realm of history (personal and otherwise), of the world, of what you really mean when you tell this story or that one. The truth is, after all, written all over your face.
On the flip side, the absence of those gap filling phone calls has had another effect entirely: once afraid, in any moment, to walk by myself, to wait for a bus by myself, to simply be, I am now forced to confront my boredom and live with the worlds both around me and coursing through my own mind. At home, without my trusty text message parental net, I figure out on my own whether my leftovers will kill me, or if it’s reasonable to spend half my life savings on a flight to New York (hint: it’s not). I get to spend more real time with both myself and my parents.
While it should be noted that it’s not real real time, as I’m gearing up for the holiday season (I’m writing this article eight hours into a plane ride, somewhere over the Great Lakes) I feel more connected to my parents than ever, despite being further, physically, than I’ve ever been. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed the Picasso-esque, pixelated versions of their faces, I’m excited to see their real ones.