May 3, 2013 6:44 pm

An absent ever-present father

The Skype effect: distance may no longer be a problem but a persistent relative can leave you afraid to open your laptop
An illustration by Lucas Varela depicting a modern family portrait of the Shrimsleys©Lucas Varela

The thrill, as B.B. King once sang, has gone. The sound, like three popping bubbles, now feels more like a summons than a satisfaction. At least that’s what I assume. After a long period of Skyping the family from San Francisco, I sense the edge has gone from their excitement at this form of communication with an absent father.

So as I return after three weeks of Skype contact it looks like the homecoming will be something less than a full Norman Rockwell event. The technology that eradicates distance has also made the communication mundane and my absence less keenly felt. It’s some contrast to the rare and rushed phone calls from New York or Washington when my father travelled on business. We did not expect any contact till his return so a call was a special treat, even if the cost meant the all-too-brief conversation was dominated by my mother telling us to hurry because it was so expensive.

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Robert Shrimsley

But now there’s no getting rid of a travelling parent or spouse, to the extent that they’ll be glad to have me back just to get me off the phone.

At first the video calls seemed a tremendous boost. Until now I’d never felt the need for personal video calls. There is a requirement of reciprocity, and one of the great benefits of the phone is that you don’t have to worry about your appearance. But with a long gap there is a natural desire to see your loved ones as well as talk to them. Still, there is something artificial to the video call; most normal conversation does not actively encourage gurning, for one thing.

The girl, in particular, seemed to rise to the on-camera performance expected of her. The gap between being carried over networks to my laptop and being beamed into millions of homes was lost on her. She was on camera, dammit, and performed admirably. Even the boy seemed content to chat, although being a teenager, he still veered instinctively towards the special bond that only instant messaging and emoticons can offer.

He has suffered, however. Since I am now told when he is online I can pester him at both ends of the day. At first this was well received but by the beginning of this week he was already asking me to get back to him later. Where once he just had to gird himself for one phone call a day asking how school had been, now there is no escape unless he abandons his computer or shuts down Skype, both of which are hefty prices to pay. (This, in fact, is a general problem with Skype: a persistent relative can leave you scared to open your laptop.)

But while the means of communication have improved exponentially, the methods remain as elusive. It is the skill all parents struggle to acquire: how to talk to your children about their day. Children do not want to be interrogated because it bores them, so a standard answer to “What did you do at school?” is “Can’t remember” or “Stuff”. Any inquiry that can generate a one-word answer is likely to be met with one.

You need the interrogation techniques of a CIA operative to winkle out the information. Well, some of them at least. I’ve checked a number of parenting manuals and waterboarding is frowned on as a method for finding out what the spawn did at lunch break. Friends say its use has been justified in that seminal parenting manual by George W. Bush’s attorney-general, Alberto Gonzalez: “How to Talk to Your Children So They Will Goddamn Answer for the Greater Good”.

Soon the much-vaunted Google Glass will allow me to film the street I’m walking down and share it live with the family on a Google Hangout, although why exactly they will want to see this is beyond me. I can see its value to Felix Baumgartner but I sense there will be no rushing to the screen on someone bellowing, “Come quick, Daddy’s walking up the stairs to his office.”

Distance and separation will become almost meaningless. It will not only be possible always to be in contact but to share your experiences as they happen. In most ways this is all to the good but still, it would be nice if they missed us just a bit more when we were away.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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