During a Zoom call last night with my parents and siblings, in talking about the huge generational gap I perceive between me and the high school students I teach, I naturally referenced social media. “You need to explain to them what that is,” my sister interrupted, nodding toward my parents. She sat between them in their living room—they live a short drive from her and she’s been caring for them as they get increasingly less self-sufficient—and, having organized this call, she took her duties as host very seriously.
“Tell them what a meal kit service is,” she said, again gesturing toward my mother and father, when I mentioned the gratuitous food I’d scored from friends’ meal kit service freebies. My brother asked a few questions before describing his latest get-rich-quick scene to sell lower-cost meal services to senior citizens. I chuckled—that’s my bro—and was about to remind him of some of his other past “great ideas.”
“Stop! He’s talking!” my sister waved her hands frantically when my father began mumbling something. He merely wanted to know my brother’s mailing address so he could send a Christmas card but my sister repeated what he said loudly like it was an official proclamation.
I owe my sister a huge, unpayable debt for being there for our folks when they need someone to help them out, and I acknowledge they very likely need someone to make decisions for them—to create order from chaos—yet I have a hard time believing they really had any desire to know what social media are. I do know what they are, and I frequently wish I didn’t. My brief explanation—you go on the computer and put pictures and words on a website and your friends see them, but also people who aren’t your friends, and there’s tons of ads—was wildly inadequate, but they didn’t ask for clarification or details, so I didn’t elaborate. Everyone was satisfied, at least until the next point in the call when my sister barked commands at us.
I could have told my sister there was no point in my explaining these things to them. I don’t ask my students to explain the vast array of things they talk about that I am clueless to comprehend. I figure 1) I won’t understand the explanation, 2) they likely prefer that I not understand, and 3) I prefer it this way, too. Truth is, no matter how much your lives intersect—even at the genetic level—there’s still so much that’s unfathomable in any other living being.
My father had lived nearly half his life before I was even born, my mother well over a third of hers. It goes both ways, you see: there are things they went through that I’ll never understand—things that, considering they’ve both beaten the actuarial odds and surpassed their average life expectancies, fewer and fewer people alive today can relate to. Knowing this, it chafes me sometimes to hear my sister treat them like helpless children, though I know, as I said, it’s probably what they need. They need someone who tells them when they should go to the doctor, when they should take their meds, how much to take, how often. They need someone to urge them not to carry on like there isn’t a pandemic and they aren’t especially vulnerable given their age. They possibly needed someone to set up Zoom calls for them, though they looked a little stiff and uncomfortable staring at my sister’s computer screen, and their faces wore expressions of patient tolerance more than anything else.
So it goes: they tolerate our babble about incomprehensible techno-gizmos and we tolerate their seemingly stubborn insistence on living several decades in the past. And so it goes with the pronouns reversed, with those several decades younger. Or not; or we lack tolerance, affixing blame instead, that one “generation” selfishly ruined everything for the rest of us while another, lazy and entitled, whines about the ruination. I sometimes feel like I’m the only person alive who recognizes that the so-called Millennials are being described verbatim the way my so-called “Generation X” was when I was their age—whatever that age might be, given that I’ve seen as much as a 15-year span for each cutely named grouping.
Time, however, only goes in one direction, and lately I’ve finally started understanding things my parents struggled through that I had no awareness of and gave them no credit for before now. I imagine that’s likely the case for the teenagers I teach; there’s really no way for them to know what it’s like to have a half century of life behind you until they get there, at which point they may look at Generation Whatever It Is Now (the Coronnials, perhaps?) and think, oh, kiddies, you have no idea. But you will. There’s a lot that’s unfathomable between us, but not everything, not always. One way or another, we can still be connected.