Sunday, March 18, 2007

Breathe in. Breathe out.

If I were ever to do the whole fatherhood thing again -- and for the record, I'm not -- I would learn to relax; possibly even exhale on occasion.

Once, around the stage between the point when I was a hero to myr kids and the point when they hated me for ruining their lives, my kids became addicted to their computers. My twin brother, Bill, gave us all laptop computers for Christmas one year and thus began my short stay as the network administrator for Company Collins.

Once a kid has a computer, they can never be without a computer again -- ever. So when the computers reached their life's end, they had to be replaced. But not before several holes were punched in the drywall, collateral damage of an unanswered "why won't my computer work?" question.

There was a period right around then when the telephone was ringing constantly. Although I found it mildly irritating, it also comforted me to know that other kids were interested in socializing with mine, and I'd come to expect not being able to get a clean line for calls at that stage of their lives anyway.

And one day, the telephone stopped ringing.

This was before either of them had cellphones, so I figured something was up; perhaps they'd been ostracized and, what with me being me and all, I began to fret that my children would end up in their rooms, alone, forever.

They spent more and more time on their PCs, coming out occassionally for food and drink, and then going right back, often bringing their food back in with them.

I'd been told to expect that around 15 years old, your kids go into their rooms, and come out a few years later to tell you where they intended to go to college. But it was no solace to me. My kids were in there, alone, while all of their friends, no doubt, were down at Starbucks or Best Buy or wherever it is that kids hang out these days. Part of me wanted to say, "why don't you go out drinking with your friends and speed down the road without seatbelts on like all the other kids?" But that would've involved communication with them.

I'd wake up at 3 in the morning and find both kids asleep, their PCs still on and Warcraft or some other game that was destroying their brains still running on their computers.

One night, it got to be too much. Around 1 in the morning, I told them both to "get off the computer" and go to bed. Then, in my pajamas, I went out into the cold night, around the side of the house, and unplugged the cable connection to the house. I went back to bed, feeling pretty good that I'd liberated the family.

My son, Sean, figured out what was going on in about 5 minutes, and went outside and hooked us back up.

So I did what any baby-boom father would do. I gave up, resigned myself to having lost my children's mind to the evil of the computer, and started figuring out how to plan my work schedule around visiting days at state prison.

See here's the thing: We have a picture of how our children are going to grow up and, usually, it looks a lot like the way we did. And when they deviate from that picture, we fret and worry and assume the worst. Not for a moment do we stop to consider that there are usually several routes to the same destination.

My kids didn't come out of their room at 18 and announce they were going to college. One of them didn't even graduate high school when I thought he would. And neither of them went off to the big university. Neither did they go to state prison or end up lonely and addicted in their parents' home. In fact, both moved out and onto their own by the time they were 18.

Here's what was happening: The phone didn't ring because kids don't use land-line phones anymore. Other kids weren't at Starbucks or Best Buy or -- with a few exceptions -- driving drunk down Highway 19 without their seat belts on. They were in their bedrooms on their computers, talking to each other with Instant Messages. Constantly. They were doing all of this while playing Warcraft, and browsing the Internet. They were socializing in the way kids socialize today and while it's not my cup of tea, it's not the evil the professionals have made it out to be.

About the time holes stopped appearing in my oldest son's room, he was developing an ability to troubleshoot computers, the little box that literally had become his lifeline. In fact, he started building his own. And he had more friends around the world than he'd ever had in Woodbury. My other son, two years younger, had followed his brother into whatever far off cyberland everyone was hanging out in and, suddenly, the two siblings that used to try to kill each other, were relating and strategizing and talking in a way I'd never seen before; a good way.

The same thing happened a few weeks ago, we were all back in the Berkshires for my mother-in-law's 80th birthday and at dinner, all the cousins who no longer had much in common, suddenly discovered that each of them "played" Warcraft and the restaurant came alive with chatter and laughter, as everyone younger than 40 spoke a language I couldn't understand.(Photo is of that group) But they all reconnected and rebonded, in a way I hadn't seen in 15 years.

Late last week, my employer, offered my oldest son, a full-time job in the information technology department, with full benefits and a salary for a 21-year-old that is higher than what the same company paid me 15 years ago at age 38. And it comes with a motivation to get back into college too.

My youngest son? He's just been accepted to the ambulance squad position for Allina Health Systems, full pay and benefits, and assistance getting his paramedic credentials, which is exactly how he'd dreamed it would be.

They're now off the grid.

As with that moment when you teach your kids to ride a bike, you hold it for them while they pedal, and then you let go and run alongside, and, finally, they pedal faster than you can run, and you stop and stand in the middle of the road, while they pedal down the street, and you realize that things will never be the same.

This is a good thing -- certainly a normal thing -- and yet you hold your breath until that moment, 15 or 20 years later, when you can finally allow yourself to exhale, not immediately acknowledging the irony that when you want to tell your friends about it, you head for a quiet room, and a computer.