March 3, 2021

This Life: Our Plugged-in Summer

But one thing was missing. So when my time came to occupy the “story rock,” I stood in front of a circle of 13 people and pulled out my secret ingredient: my wife’s iPad.

I didn’t set out to spend my summer vacation online. A few things conspired to give me the idea. The first was the insistent finger wagging one now encounters that the only way to spend quality time with one’s children is to disengage from technology.

Get off the grid! Take a screen vacation! As one well-meaning theologian put it in an e-mail someone forwarded me this June, “Fathers, put down your phones!” Go to any playground, play date or sporting event, he wrote, and dads are glued to their devices. “Am I moralizing,” he asked, “if I say that I think we are lingering longer on these devices than we realize or admit?”

The same day, my brother sent along a link for a new app (leafsnap) that allows users to identify trees by submitting photos of leaves. What a smart way to juice that nature walk, I thought. The next day I saw a Twitter message from Pierre Omidyar (@pierre), the eBay founder, in which he attached a photo and asked, “What is the name of this purple and white flower bush?” Seconds later he had his answer: lilac.

Then my sister wrote to ask how she could identify the bird building a nest on her deck. “Take a picture and put it on Facebook,” I said. “You’ll have an answer within the hour.” She bet me it wouldn’t work, but within 19 minutes two friends had confirmed it was a Carolina wren.

I concocted a scheme. During weekends this summer, I would pursue the opposite of an unplugged vacation: I would check screens whenever I could. Not in the service of work, but in the service of play. I would crowd-source new ideas for car games and YouTube my picnic recipes. I would test the prevailing wisdom that the Internet spoils all the fun. With back-to-school fast approaching, here’s my report.

For starters, the Web supplied an endless font of trivia and historical tidbits to enliven our days. I learned that a great debate still rages over who was the “Benedict” in eggs Benedict; that ancient mythologists believed fish were so afraid of the ospreys that they turned up their bellies in surrender; and that care packages like the one we sent my nephew at camp had their origins feeding starving Europeans in World War II and initially contained liver loaf and steak and kidneys.

Online videos are another boon to summer. When my 6-year-old daughters were upset that we didn’t awaken them at midnight to watch a brief light show on the Eiffel Tower, a quick trip to YouTube did the trick. My brother-in-law watched online videos to learn how to make the perfect crosshatch pattern on grilled fish. And my father used to teach my girls how sea turtles emerge from the Atlantic near our home on Tybee Island, Ga., and lay eggs. Injured turtles are implanted with G.P.S. devices, allowing them to be tracked online.

One surprising way that being plugged in improved our vacations was using newfangled resources to solve oldfangled problems. Bugs, for one. I used the Internet to find a home remedy for the slugs eating my begonias (broken eggshells). My sister-in-law snapped a photo of the alarming bug bite on her 10-month-old and sent it along to our other sister who’s a pediatrician. (No Lyme disease!) Others did the same thing with burns and poison ivy.

The Web proved particularly helpful when we broke the disposal at my in-laws’ weekend house. No problem. I typed the problem into Google and within seconds was looking at the exposed rear end of a Joe the Plumber look-alike who made an extremely helpful video guide to being a weekend D.I.Y.-er.

The Web also helped give us the feeling that we saw people more than we did. While it’s fashionable to complain that we’re overly connected, I still found an occasional, virtual interaction with a friend or family member to be as pleasant as running into them on the beach. I texted with my 12-year-old nephew about geocaching when we get together. My kids Skyped with my parents about learning to swim.

Bruce Feiler’s most recent book, “Generation Freedom: The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World,” was just published. “This Life” appears monthly.

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