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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

OMG, how obsolete am I? Add to ...

I exchange a lot of e-mail with a certain friend of mine, whom I'll call A. A is quite expressive, and until recently she concluded her e-mails by writing, "LOL, A."

Eventually she discovered her mistake - but only after sending several condolence messages to a newly bereaved friend. "LOL," she wrote tenderly, not knowing that LOL generally stands for "laughing out loud." "I feel terrible," she groaned. "I always thought it stood for 'lots of love.' "

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OMG, I felt so bad for her! But I could relate. For the longest time, I thought it stood for "lots of love," too.

The problem with trying to sound like you're still with it is that you're bound to make an idiot of yourself. People already know you're not with it, so why remind them?

Another friend of mine was invited to give a talk about her bestselling book to an audience of high-school girls. It was a memoir of her own childhood, so she thought about what part might interest them. She decided to tell the story of how she met Marilyn Monroe when she was 10. Halfway through the story, she realized the faces gazing back at her were politely blank. A teacher waded in to help her out. "Who knows who Marilyn Monroe was?" she asked brightly. Two or three hesitant hands went up. "A rock star?" ventured one.

It's painful to realize that most of my stock of cultural knowledge is about as relevant as my parents' stash of Kingston Trio records. So are many of the skills that I used to be so proud of. I am secretly appalled that the next generation will grow up without knowing how to write in cursive, tell time from a clock with hands, do long division, read a map, use a stick shift, hyphenate or spell. But this is just another indication of how obsolete I am. I might as well be horrified because they don't know how to shoe a horse.

Nothing makes me feel my obsolescence quite so much as chatting to my friends' kids as they come home for the holidays. Most of them have jobs I find hard to grasp. One is in charge of social marketing for the Olympics, an extremely important responsibility that seems to involve making friends with athletes on Facebook. She told me not to feel bad, because her bosses don't understand what she does either. They just issue orders and fake it. Another young woman has a highly successful website optimization business. Her sideline is detecting fraudulent online restaurant reviews (e.g., ones posted by friends of the owner) on a major restaurant site. This work is so hush-hush that I'm not even supposed to mention it exists.

The variety of specialties and niches created by the new economy never ceases to amaze me. The other day I had a long chat with someone whose job is to make websites more sticky.* I know someone else who is the head of Brand Experience for a big design firm, which makes a lot of money by helping your local bank to appear more friendly to thirtysomethings. None of these bright young people worry about job security, because none of them have ever had it.

There's always been a generation gap, of course. But it's weird to find yourself on the other side of it. One of my friends has a daughter who is organizing her entire wedding (except for the event itself) in cyberspace. Everything else - the life story of the bride and groom, the wedding plans, the gift registry and eventually the wedding album - is online. The bride-to-be was floored when her mom suggested that it might be helpful to go down to Ashley's and look at a bunch of china - real china - before she picked her pattern. (Although the store is only blocks away from her in Toronto, it had simply not occurred to her to go in person.) Now the bride-to-be is even planning to send out old-fashioned wedding invitations - ink on paper, in the mail, with stamps. Her mom will show her how.

I'm no Luddite. I spent decades changing typewriter ribbons, wrestling with carbon paper and mastering the use of Wite-Out. I don't miss that labour any more than my great-grandma missed drawing water from the well when they put the plumbing in. Progress is good. Still, I wonder if my great-grandnieces will ever sit around my fake electric hearth as I spin tales of the olden days, when people got lost sometimes, and had to look things up in books to get information. Perhaps I will amaze them with ancient courtship rituals, such as the blind date.

Meantime, I am seriously thinking of getting an iPhone. My friend, A, got one, and she loves it, mostly because it keeps her from getting lost. She is my BBF! (Or is that BFF?) Anyway, my boss thinks I should have one, or at the very least a BlackBerry. She doesn't know how I get along without it. She is 16 years younger than I am, and she has a book on her desk called Managing the Older Employee. OMG!! She says it's just a joke. Ha, ha. Or should I say, LOL.

*This means getting people to linger on your website for longer. Stickiness is very good. If you've read this far, it means I am sticky too.

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