Sunday, March 03, 2013

Social creatures

I know that look. The practiced smile, the sparkling eyes …

She's standing there … waiting for me.

A hundred prayers have silently passed her lips as she licks them in anticipation of my answer.

She's holding out her little window to the world; a touch screen smudged with streaks of bright orange cheese dust, the exact width of her lipgloss-tinged fingertips. “Can I go there and play?” she asks. “Pretty please?”

“Happy Street,” shines out at me from the backlight. Animated town homes, cottages, rocket ship condos … each more fantastical than the next … dot the landscape in a single, neat row.

Her friend – a real-life child with an active avatar – is already ensconced in this small-screen place, building a world of her own out of programed pixel palaces. The pitch sounds rehearsed: “We can build our own towns. We can visit each other's neighborhoods. I can send her messages. … It will be like she lives next door.”

“See? Look here … pandas walk along the street,” she exclaims, pointing at a black and white splotch parading back and forth, robotically, as if it were an irresistible selling point.

“It's free,” she sings.

She knows I will relent. I thrust out my arm and take the device.

How could I say no to the possibility of possessing a panda?

“Far be it from me to keep you from dressing up endangered species and feeding them ice cream from a virtual vending truck.”

I type out the access code -- a sequence of letters and numbers Ittybit pretends she doesn't know so that I might cling to the fallacy that I am more than merely a figurehead in a parliamentary form of government most people refer to as "parenting."
I hand the device back to her. She's in.

It all vaguely reminds me of a moment, long ago, when I ventured into a remarkable world (albeit a real one) in a six-floor walk-up in Alphabet City.

This might be a story as old as time:

Girl and her friends go to the Big City; girls meet boy at a club, Boy asks girls to see his etchings, which are just around the corner in a two-bedroom apartment he shares with seven other people.

He hadn't invited us upstairs to see his “etchings,” if that's what you we're thinking. No, we were going off to see a “cat the size of a Thanksgiving turkey.”

We weighed the risks and potential morning headlines: “Man, with aid of seven roommates, murders tourists stupid enough to leave bar with stranger.”

Thinking that was entirely too clunky a sentence to make it into a newspaper, we followed him down the street and up six flights of stairs into one of the most organized apartments I had ever (and probably will ever) seen in my lifetime.

Bookcases lined the walls, floor to ceiling and comprised the dividers that made up the tidy bedroom cubicles. Seven tiny rooms filled with all manner of things.

Our guide made his own bedroom under the kitchen sink.

It was a spectacular sight. As was his cat, which truly looked like a fattened turkey in a grey, tabby-fur coat.

And there was more. … The man who lived under a sink had a record collection that rivaled no other. He pulled from thin air crates and crates of vinyl records and treated us to two of his most prized recordings: A vintage Canary Training album, which, when played repeated bird songs in an infernal loop; and BF Goodrich's 1958 Sales Meeting, a song-and-dance extravaganza that sounded as if it may have rivaled a Ziegfeld show.

My friend and I left a short while later and headed for the train; unscathed, having seen the wonders of an impossibly large cat, a business-conference as a musical sideshow and how to design an apartment that accommodates eight comfortably ... in Tetris.

I blinked as the sounds of Ittybit's video game and its tinny, robotic music brought me back to the present.

She is busy designing her own world in a virtual place where people can live in windmills or rocket ships or under their kitchen sinks if they want to. Eventually, she'll probably venture out to look for laughing cats, silly music videos, or just a tiny little room where she can chat.

It occurs to me in this moment, the world really hasn't changed all that much.

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