If you wind your way up a steep hill, deep into a dead-end street that culminates in thick alpine forest, you will (eventually) find our holiday home, cozy and warm. But take care if you go inside: it’s a war zone. There, six family members employ various creative and subversive tactics to battle it out for the use of “only two” laptops. Don’t for a moment think that each family member does not have their own laptop. We all do. It’s just that none of us can be bothered to pack it up, with the charging cables and mouse and shoulder bags, each time we shift from our main home in the city to our holiday home a half an hour into the hills. Our four children assume that my wife and I will be spending quality time together, in mutual embrace, and that we will therefore be sufficiently distracted that they will be able to abscond with one of their parents’ two Macs.
My fifteen-year-old, who is bedecked in all the hormonal trappings of a boy of his age, is the one who typically needs the laptop most often and for the longest periods of time. None of us know why and no one has ever seen the fruits of this usage. It is also ninja-silent, as the boy will plug himself in with oversized, construction site-style headphones, which are only removed if someone bursts into his room, unannounced, or if, hunting for a snack, he inadvertently leaves them on the stairs, on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table.
The hunt for an apple begins around 2pm which, for a teenager, qualifies as the middle of the night. My son, kitted out in his pajamas, will shimmy down the staircase, then stop halfway. This offers him the optimal surveillance point to monitor the entire living room area, while saving valuable energy by not descending the final eight steps, in case he determines that he cannot, at that moment, acquire what he seeks. His sniper vision scans the room until it lands on the object of his desire: my laptop.
“You using that?” he asks. I detect a manipulative undertone. As if he had said, “You don’t need that, of course.”
“I don’t need it now, only in a few hours.”
He deigns to take the last eight steps, grabs the laptop, checks that the battery is full, nods in appreciation then slowly slinks back up the stairs, disappearing into his room.
I don’t know exactly what he does in his room. The contemporary teenage boy is a blank sheet of paper in my mind, when compared to our 16-year-old daughter. It is all too clear what she does all day. She reads books in the living room, blasts music in the bathroom while singing along, works on crossword puzzles on the terrace, plays ball with our two younger ones (7 and 8) while they pretend to be twin dogs and, with lolling tongues (and accompanying slobber), bring the ball back to her. If our teenage girl needs some time to herself, she throws the ball down the hill in our backyard and into the tall grass. In short, her activities are visible for all to see.
Our teenage boy, however, remains mysterious, aside from three incontrovertible facts: He is in his room, he is wearing headphones and he is on the computer. Four facts: he is also on his smartphone. Make that five: he’s also playing his Nintendo DS. More than once he has not left his room from morning until evening. Whatever he is doing, it’s clearly a full-time job. Once I lost it, opened his bedroom door and shouted: “Get your ass into the fresh air!”
That’s the only aspect of that interaction that I can recall. After all, that “fresh air” is the only reason that we built this lovely wooden house at the top of a hill in the forest. The boy just looked at me with sleepy eyes, removed the headphones from his ears, got up from his bed, walked to the window, opened it a crack, returned to the bed and the computer, pointed to the just-open window and coolly replied: “Fresh air.”
So those few hours passed. I needed the computer. I didn’t feel like climbing all the way up the stairs to his room and expend unnecessary energy (our genetic connection is evident). So I sent him a text message: “I’ll need the computer in 20 minutes.”
My son sent a reply, managing to use the absolute minimum possible energy: “K”
Wow, I thought to myself, he even shorted OK… It seems that every letter truly must be a considered investment.
Twenty minutes later he slid his way onto the terrace, stopped beside me in my lounge chair, and deposited the laptop into my hands.
“Thank you,” I said, nicely.
“All good,” he replied, as he climbed into the other lounge chair and scooted it closer to mine. I was confused by this action.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing. I’ll just wait here until you finish what you’ve got to do.”
“I’m going to write an essay.”
He leaned back into the chair and watched me.
Less than a minute later he nodded towards the screen. “You haven’t written anything.”
“You’re making me nervous. I can’t write when you’re looking over my shoulder. A little personal space, please.”
He didn’t move.
Okay, what had I planned to write about today? I was thinking of an essay inspired by the words of a friend who explained to me the benefits of permissive parenting, as his son destroyed the flowers decorating a nearby hotel. Maybe not. I wasn’t sure if, after publication, we would remain friends. Perhaps I would write on how my wife and I have different perspectives on the best places and times to quarrel? I like to argue with my wife when we’re alone, never in front of the children. My wife is perfectly happy if the kids are around.
“You’ve still got nothing,” he said. “What are you going to write about?”
“I’m going to write about how you’re annoying me in order to get the laptop back as soon as possible,” I replied.
“Super, I’ll read along. Why don’t you go ahead and start writing.”
For a few minutes, nothing happens. I’ve not written a word, he has said nothing. Then suddenly, my son leans towards me, extends his hand and pointer finger, E.T.-style, and pushes the letter “I.”
“There you go,” he says. “Now you have your first letter. At least you’ve started.”
I erase the “I.”
“Now you’re back to the drawing board,” he calmly exhales, pulling his phone out of his pocket. I turn towards him. My son. I smile at him. He’s right. If I want to finish something, first I’ve got to start it. And he helped me with that, even if he had ulterior motives in doing so.
I undo my erasure and the “I” reappears on my screen. And I begin to write the essay that you’ve just finished reading.