By Robert Reich
My father once said that at the 1939 World’s Fair he saw an exhibit about the future featuring “picture phones” that allowed people to talk and see each other. He predicted the gadgets would fail because users would find them awkward and unnerving.
Well, that future is now — and it’s not awkward in the slightest. I just had FaceTime calls with my two sons and their families (including two wonderful daughters-in-law and a granddaughter) – one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see and hear all of them. They looked relaxed. They’re enjoying the holidays. They’re safe and healthy.
We’ve been exchanging text messages and regular phone calls during the holiday. But to see them — to watch and interact with them — is different. Not as good as being with them, of course, but the next best thing when family members live thousands of miles away and the pandemic makes travel difficult.
Like my father, I’m a bit of a technophobe. I’m a late adapter of e-everything. When it comes to Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Microsoft, I harbor deep suspicions bordering on loathing. I hate the part of “connectivity” that threatens our autonomy and privacy and undermines our democracy.
But I love the part that just moments ago allowed me to see their faces light up, watch them laugh and joke, and be there with them, even for a few minutes. My granddaughter is growing and changing so fast I almost can’t bear not being with her. And yet there she was on my phone, her eyes dancing directly into the eyes of her delighted grandfather!
When my sons were her age and a bit younger, I went to Washington to join Bill Clinton’s cabinet. I missed the precious years when they were turning from youngsters to teenagers — separating from their parents and discovering their independent selves. Sure, I saw them on weekends and on holidays. But I was often preoccupied with the Nation’s Business. Had FaceTime existed then I doubt it would have made much difference. During the week I worked twelve-hour days.
Over and over again I told myself the grandiose lie that the nation needed me. Yet deep down I knew they needed me more.
I left the Clinton administration because the truth finally caught up with me. But by then we had only a few years left together before they went off into the world — first one, then the other.
And now some two decades later they have their own families, their own responsibilities, their own lives. They live and work thousands of miles away. Even during this holiday week, their aging dad can’t be with them. A fierce pandemic continues to rip its way through the world.
I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision years ago — spending those years in meetings, on the phone, traveling around the country, managing a vast bureaucracy, racing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill — instead of with them. I tell myself not to dwell on what can never be relived or retrieved, but the question lingers.
All I know right now is that I miss them and my daughters-in-law and granddaughter terribly. I’m grateful to be able to share small slices of their lives, even on FaceTime.