I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with technology. When I got my first answering machine back in the '80s, it was with a mix of excitement (never missing another call!) and dread (but what if no one called?). I make no pretense of being an early adopter, but I pride myself in believing that I eventually do catch up. (Although my son will cringingly tell you that I still sometimes call my iPod a Walkman.)
Our kids are great at forcing us to keep up with the times. Years ago my son taught me the difference between ripping, burning, downloading and importing (and for a while there, I even remembered). He kept me current with cool websites (he was the first to turn me on to, for instance, Stumbleupon, Fark and Catsinsinks) and always had me upgrade software and do smart things like defark my computer.
Years ago he made me switch from my comfortable Internet Explorer browser to Firefox (which I kept calling Foxfire, partly to piss him off and partly because I’m partly dyslexic). He was about to trash my old Explorer desktop icon when I insisted he keep it there “just in case.” He did — and labeled it “I/E: USE FIREFOX.”
When he went away to college, I knew I was in for trouble, and had him leave me the same detailed instructions for watching videos that we’d leave for foreign guests, who were clueless about our systems, and his grandparents. I’m embarrassed to admit that more than once I still had to call him for further explanation.
A typical helpful exchange would go something like this. Me: “Rory, which machine should I play the DVD in and what do I set the TV to?” Him: “MOM! It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night and I’m at COLLEGE. What’s wrong with this picture?” Me: “There’s nothing wrong with the picture, honey, I just can’t switch the TV to Video.” CLICK.
Oh, eventually I’d figure it out. He’s always been a great teacher that way, giving me the confidence to muddle my way through. Last summer he put those teaching skills to good use — and in the process unintentionally forced my biggest tech upgrade ever. He moved to Korea to teach English.
Korea is 6,885 miles (or 11,080 kilometers) away, the farthest apart we’ve ever been for more than a few weeks. It’s also 13 or 14 hours ahead (they don’t do daylight savings), and therein lies my greatest challenge of all.
At first he wrote long, delicious emails, describing everything he’d seen, done and, especially, eaten. (That part was less delicious: I’m a squeamish vegetarian, and he’s an omnivore without a hint of a dilemma.) He’d pen these riotously funny letters about cultural exchanges and miscommunications, the bulk of which seemed to have been found emblazoned on cute girls’ T-shirts (e.g., "Mono.B Nice To Me!"; "General Educate!").
And then the emails stopped.
When I used to travel regularly, I made a point of avoiding that dreaded yet ubiquitous outcropping of modern life, the Internet café, populated, as they always were, by colorful young people in headsets, yammering away in a Babel of cacophony. You might not be able to drink the water in a town or get electricity on demand in your “hotel,” but by gum, you could always get online in some Internet café. No matter how much I missed people back home, I was determined to never become one of those … Skypers. It felt a noisy and impersonal way to connect with a loved one.
But now that my son is 6,885 miles and 13 hours away, I’ve learned all the nuances of Skype (and gchat). For starters, I always know what time it is in Korea (5:04 am, thank you, though right now, all bets are off: He’s a Rangers fan — and if you don't know what that implies, it's not worth trying to explain). I always keep half an eye on my gchat list, waiting for his name to pop up. Skype stays open — with its constant annoying dings — in hopes of a cameo appearance.
The thing I loved to hate has become my parental lifeline. I’m also not ashamed to admit I own a Skype-compatible headset and actually have used it in … Internet cafés. Anything to talk to my boy.
I can’t begin to guess what new gizmos or apps are in the works that will make reaching out and connecting easier or quicker (or offer better quality). But if anyone in some high-tech R+D department is reading this and taking requests, could I make one? Can you invent a device that would let us hug?