Return with me now to the thrilling days of yesteryear. No, not the Lone Ranger, for those of you mature enough to remember that show. But to pre-Internet days.
For four days recently, my Internet connection was down. Frustrated? Yes. Unproductive, friendless, and isolated. No.
After I’d clicked on every piece of equipment in my possession designed to link me and the world at large, then discovered no signal, I panicked. What would I do? How could I work?
I admit pretty much every time I reached for a piece of information, be it a phone number, confirmation of a fact, or the weather report, and couldn’t get it instantaneously, I grumbled mentally. Particularly when I needed to confirm meetings with several people, or actually hold a meeting via Skype, my dissatisfaction increased. But I survived. I visited several locations with free Internet to catch up on essentials.
As I sought alternative methods to figure out when a snowstorm would hit, I wondered what people think Internet access is doing to us. Some are concerned that too much Internet reduces the deep thinkingthat leads to true creativity. Was I more creative without the Web? I don’t think so. My connections always seem to spark more ideas and exploration. However, I believe I got more actual, productive work done during the hiatus.
Then there’s the theory people whoare socially anxious are more likely to use electronic communication so they can avoid interaction. I don’t know if I qualify as socially anxious, but I definitely use email to avoid extended conversations and control the content. During the interruption, I had to use the phone which I hate to do. So only a few people heard from me, which probably was appreciated by all.
During times of crisis, such as the terrorist attack in Paris, I know I’d miss access the most. With television and radio, I can’t search for exactly what I want, and I feel inundated by uncontrollable floods of terrifying pictures and reports.
On the whole, my involuntary exclusion went well. I didn’t have withdrawal symptoms; it was kind of nice not to feel pressure to interact constantly. I missed little but the ability to look up word definitions immediately as I’m reading a novel, but little else. Still I felt out of sync with the rest of the world, disconnected. I was on the dark side of thedigital divide, one, we’re assured, creates an unbridgeable gap and marks the adult needy as surely as a poor child is labeled by being eligible for free school lunches.
To avoid landing in the situation in the future, I know what’s inevitable, I’m forced to be dragged kicking and screaming into the next stage of my techie progress—perpetual connection via a smart phone.
When I look at one particular photo from my childhood, it captures my family perfectly: Disneyland, 1950s, planted on the edge of a circular planter. With one hand, my mother grips the stroller containing the current baby (there always was a new one), staring off to the right. The kids strewn to her side, also sitting, probably for fighting or misbehaving, each of us looking into the distance, not at one another.
Way over on the left, separated from the rest of us, my grandpa. The fedora hat he always wore, even in the California heat, alone, isolated, also staring off. My father, the one behind the camera, trying to capture visually what he always sought emotionally, and never succeeded in finding—the perfect happy American family. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, everyone, smile,” as he stretched his lips in a grin, pointed his camera and shot.
Leo Tolstoywrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t know if I agree. Nothing in life is that simple, especially as I grow older. I started thinking about families when reading an author who’d entered some hyper-critical observations on his own father—his over-protectiveness, his predictions of failure. I imagine that dad wanted to protect his son. I now know after having children and grandchildren of my own that most of us simply try to do the best we can.
At times, if I imagine one of mine in danger, or hurting, or discouraged, the love I have swells inside me, like yeast doubling, tripling in size until it’s about to choke me. I have to think my parents had the same response, even if I didn’t know then.
There’s much more to the photo of my family than just an image of people together on outing. Separate, isolated, roiling with emotions that at least some of the time were resentful and angry. There’s much more to the stories those people lived: my mother, abandoned by her mother before adolescence; my father, whose first wife died in pregnancy, leaving him with two little girls to raise; several sisters still to face death, poverty, disappointments in their lives; brothers with their own challenges.
I’ve avoided writing about my family for years because it hurt too much. Was my family dysfunctional, or simply normal? Life can’t be happy and smooth all the time. What hurts the most is my inability to change myself in the past, compensate for my shortcomings. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop running away. Time to honor those people for being themselves, doing their best. Acknowledge the closeness we had, what we brought to one another, and, yes, the love we felt. But whether to use memoirs, essays, or fiction, I don’t know yet.