One family’s desperate struggle to manage computer use during the pandemic.
I got myself a small boat and took up fishing specifically to escape life inside my computer. Too much time inside my computer drove me to become expert in choosing the right winds and tides to wrestle bull redfish from the waters around New Orleans. That’s how much I came to hate my fucking computer.
And I hate it even more now, during the pandemic. This year, my family’s screentime has increased like my vodka consumption, until every single thing in my life besides the vodka and the fishing now exists within my computer.
For more than a decade as a freelance writer, I poured into my laptop all of my most personal thoughts and feelings about hundreds of important topics from the deteriorating coastline here in Louisiana, to my waxing/waning marriage. When not writing, I’d write songs and record them. On the computer. When I felt unmotivated I’d veg out and watch movies. On the computer. When lonely, I’d socialize. On the computer. When horny: laptop.
Anyone can see why I resorted to fishing.
To escape the computer I finally begged off my freelance writing dreams and conceded to teach some surprisingly pleasant remedial English classes at the community college behind my house. My students wrote all their essays by hand. I marked their papers in red pen, and documented it all in an old-school green pleather gradebook: Totally analog. I loved living outside my computer, among the real people of New Orleans and their famously lovable accents.And then coronavirus crammed all of them into my computer. Grading their essays by email, I couldn’t even put their faces to their names. It felt like neither real teaching, nor real learning.
At home, it’s the same for my kids. Coronavirus has exiled them into the computer. Except they love it in there. It’s what they always wanted. My life’s dream of having my daughters out on the boat with me, laughing and reeling in speckled trout, was never a match for computerworld. This virus has become their revolutionary moment, wherein they cast aside all the digital limitations I imposed upon them in olden times, and live the life they really wanted. Inside the fucking computer.
Before her final year in elementary school was suddenly digitized, my 5th grader Cleopatra had bloomed into a tremendous artist, partially because I forbade her and her 5-year-old sister Xyla from staring into any screens on school nights. For years, each time Cleo asked for my laptop I’d say, “Sorry baby, no. Go draw,” so that by now she boasts a fat portfolio of work so impressive it could already win her an college scholarship.
In fact, we owned no TV at all until Cleo turned five and we finally bought a glowing babysitter. “The stun gun,” we always called the TV: an admission to ourselves that sitting Cleo before the screen meant turning her off. We didn’t bullshit ourselves about why. We needed the stun gun, sometimes, to stop Cleo’s glowing personality, her brilliant sense of humor, her vibrant mind: OFF. The screen existed in our home to make the child disappear. That I still see it that way could be part of the problem now.
By the time Xyla arrived in the world, security had grown more lax, and Cleo was allowed several hours of TV each weekend morning, and several more hours each weekend night. Which is why Xyla’s craving for screen now resembles vampiric bloodlust. Mom and dad easily maintained a no screens law for three or four hours each night between the end of school and bedtime, but now, without school, we are left out in the open, vulnerable. Xyla especially smells our weakness, and has enlisted her big sister to help stage a screentime coup.
Each night before bed I must remember to hide the tablet and four laptops in my nightstand, and each morning around 6am the slightest rustle of Xyla sneaking the tablet out of my room opens my eyes. She realizes I’m awake, and makes a desperate last fuck y’all sprint for the door. Or sometimes she succeeds, and I don’t wake until 9am, when I find them both in Cleo’s bed, huddled around the glowing inanity they’ve absorbed for three hours already. I feel sad as I begin each quarantine day with the same warning, “You are not allowed to use the tablet or laptop without asking your parents — which you can’t do if we’re asleep. Also, no screens on school days, except for schoolwork.”
“OK, dad.” They pretend to care. I take away their screens as they look at me like, You will have to give up soon…
Five minutes later Xyla asks, “Can I play on the tablet?” Then she pretends to cry when told no. Sans sympathy, I escape into the next room, and find my oldest sitting, laptop open.
“Jesus, Cleo! How many times would I have to say it, for you to hear it, and listen?”
“I’m doing my math!” she shouts back. School aids in their coup.
I leave Cleo be, step out of the room — but then quietly tip-toe back and surprise her! Ah ha! She is not doing math! She’s chatting with her damned friends! Her friends, from the school she hasn’t attended in months. The friends she can’t play with in person. Her friends, two of whom moved away out-of-state during this pandemic. The kids didn’t even get to hug goodbye.
“Well either do your school work,” I tell Cleo anyway, “or get off the computer.”
At which point little Xyla moans, “Why does she get to be on the computer and I can’t?! I want the tablet!” Xyla reopens her spillway of tears, and I cannot blame the conservative oafs who distrust Bill Gates. He has a lot to answer for.
One way or another, because of corona, my kids now consume in two days the amount of screen time I used to allow them each week. A survey by advocacy group ParentsTogether claimed that, since the pandemic began, most American kids now spend six hours or more a day online, a 500% increase. Watching this up close has brought me to disagree with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ claim that screen time is harmless so long as it’s educational. Every school day I spend with my kids compounds my belief that humans shouldn’t sit for hours staring at a screen. Screens alone, regardless of what’s on them, have proven to cause developmental issues in children, mostly behavioral problems. When, at the end of each long day, Cleo rubs her fried eyes and complains, “My back is starting to hurt like an old man’s,” I know this is not a healthy situation.
Our struggle rages indoors, because my Gulf-raised daughters won’t play outside if the temperature drops below 73-degrees. Nor do my girls show much interest in my music studio, its guitars and basses and drum kit. Their mother can only sometimes lure them into her big art studio with its pottery wheel and kiln. My kids prefer to watch other people do all those activities on YouTube. I catch them all the time watching other kids play.
I beg them to come fish with me. My little 16-foot aluminum boat has provided me much solace during this pandemic, but my daughters claim to hate fishing. I have to plead with them to come watch dolphins jump, and otters play, and alligators and nutria and bald eagles plus whatever delicious fish I jerk from the water. They accompany me out into the perfect weather onto the perfect water, and every few minutes ask to play on my phone.
Limiting their screen time to whenever I use my computer only makes me realize I too have terrible fucking screen habits. Which they point out often: “You can’t tell us to get off the computer if you’re on the computer, dad!,” Cleo whines, having not yet learned the word ‘hypocrite.’
“I am doing my online teaching stuff, which I hate. You can’t throw it up to me if I hate doing it,” I claim. “I would much rather be outside in this nice weather.”
“Can I Facetime with Akayla?” she attempts.
“No. Stop asking the same question over and over, please.”
“But you’re on the computer!”
“I’m on here making money to pay bills!” I say again and again, every day. I sigh, depleted. To get her to leave me alone I ask, “Will you go fishing with me after lunch?”
And suddenly Xyla is crying: “I want to go fishing!”
“The boat’s not big enough baby. I will take you next time,” I promise, confused. Xyla seems so upset that I change my plans, buy a ball of twine and a pack of turkey necks, and drive us into the swamps of Laffitte to all go crabbing off the public docks.
I’m amazed to find that my kids love crabbing. I suppose that makes sense, since it’s as much like a video game as real life gets: The crab line goes taut, and one sister pulls the line up, slowly to not scare the crab away, much slower than I have the patience for. As the big, bright blue, brilliant orange and yellow crab nears the surface still nibbling the turkey neck, the other sister stealthily slips the net into the water to scoop up their prize, then toss it in the Igloo cooler. We perform this ceremony 100 hundred times over four hours. Xyla plays with the baby crabs too small to eat, learning to pick them up from special angles where their claws can’t nip her fingers.
This is where I want to be, forever. Not inside the computer. The girls are so excited to bring home 20 nice blue crabs, though they warn me they will not eat them. They open the refrigerator 100 times to look at the crabs, alive on a baking tray but too cold to move. They enjoy the whole experience so much that the next day when they ask for YouTube, I say “no” then jokingly suggest, “How about we go crabbing again? That was fun.”
“Yes!” They leap from the couch “OK!”
That second night crabbing, my little one splashes her squirmy white toes in the water off the dock. “Baby, I hate to be a wet blanket, but that makes me nervous,” I admit. “We don’t want crabs biting your toes!” Not five minutes later, one line goes particularly taut, and I pull up a four-foot alligator. The girls squeal as the gator thrashes and spins, clinging to the turkey neck until finally it gives up and swims away. That was a first for even me.
And with that, my daughters finally seem to realize the way raw nature trumps screen time. They even ask to go crabbing again the next night! My heart swells at their transformation. All it took was being quarantined away from school and their friends, unable to go anywhere, strapped to a laptop for months on end. In that way, my computer finally did fulfill my life’s dream.
Out on my boat with my daughters now, and all their beautiful enthusiasm, and not a damned computer in sight, I feel as happy as my five-year-old must’ve when she first found out she wouldn’t have to return to school this year, and she cried out, “I love the coronavirus!”