About three years ago, a family trooped into my therapy office for the first time. The father was a chubby man with curly hair and a hangdog look; the mother, who had engineered the visit, was perfectly coiffed and made up. Their daughter, the subject of their distress, was a slim, pretty girl of about 15, sullen and slouching, as if she were walking into a gale.
I shook their hands as they entered. The daughter, let’s call her Kate, offered me her left hand. I responded in kind and glanced at her other hand, expecting to see a cast or a splint. Instead, I saw a spangly purple cellphone, the kind, new at the time, with a keyboard that slides out like a trundle bed. For the entire fifty minutes of the visit I saw little of Kate but the top of her head, as she stared at the screen and thumbed at the keyboard without any attempt at concealment. Her grip on the phone, and the phone’s on her, never loosened, not even when she was answering, sometimes vociferously, her parents’ complaints about her. For their part, her parents never, not once, commented on Kate’s preoccupation.
During the visit I didn’t mention either Kate’s phone or her parents’ apparent obliviousness to their daughter’s behavior. A therapist learns early on not to question a family’s norms too quickly, lest their sudden awareness of how strange their domestic arrangements appear from the outside lead them to slam shut the door they’ve cracked open. But at the next visit, before she could sit down, I asked Kate to hand me her phone. Her parents, already seated, froze as she swung her head around and trained her eyes on me. It was, I realized, the first time we’d made eye contact, and what I saw was a mixture of fear and anger not unlike that of a raccoon cornered in a vegetable patch by an irate gardener wielding a shovel.
“Why?” she demanded.
“Because I have a really hard time concentrating when you’re distracted,” I said. “I keep wondering what’s going on on your phone, and I figure that whatever it is must be more interesting than what’s going on in here.”
“Well, that’s for sure.”
“I’m certain that’s true,” I said. “Nothing here can compete with what’s on your phone. But sometimes we have to pay attention to less interesting things.” I reached out my hand, and she put the phone in it. It was warm and moist. I thought I could feel the indentation of her fingers on its rounded edges. “It seems almost like this phone is part of you,” I said as I put it on my desk. “Like another limb or something.”
“No duh,” she said. “It is.” She held my eyes. There was no shame or defensiveness in them now, let alone fear. Just contempt. It wasn’t the first time a kid had made me out to be a fossil: I’m 53 years old, I wear Tevas and wool socks and have a ponytail that falls to the middle of my back, so I’m fair game. Other hints of my obsolescence usually take the form of the books and movies I mention, the celebrities whose names I don’t recognize or my shaggy beliefs about how there might be more to life than making money. But the gap between Kate and me wasn’t cultural or political in origin. It had to do with different ideas about what kind of creatures we are. My comment, which I’d made for no particular reason, hadn’t told her anything she didn’t already know—that she was in some fundamental way different from me, and from the rest of the grown-ups with whom she had to share the planet. We had only four limbs. She had five, and with that extra appendage she could reach out of her tiny, bounded self and into the whole wide world—or at least the world that could blink to life on her screen.