“Mummy, did you hear me?”
I am typing intently, gazing into the screen as if into the eyes of an oracle. Here’s another e-mail from my mother complaining that I haven’t returned a phone call. “If you don’t leave a message how can I know you called?” I type, a bit snippily.
“I said, Phoebe just spilled milk all over the kitchen floor. The cork floor! All over it!”
“Okay, that’s fine, let me just finish this e-mail…”
Paris turns to Violet and in friendly, practical tones I hear him explain, “Now that she’s got another computer, I guess we will have to start saying everything three times.”
“Hey,” I object, stung. “You will not. It’s just that I haven’t had e-mail for ten days and…” trailing off, I find myself glancing back at the glowing blue monitor, as if to include it in the conversation.
It’s been ten days of 19th-century living, with no writing articles, no Googling, no “just checking the newses” and no e-mailing of any kind whatsoever.
NPR reported recently that people who voluntarily foreswore their Internet connections for a two-week period experienced feelings of grief, loss, and isolation. This is quite true. So you would think that logging on again would produce intense sensations of rapture and communion, but the effect is not quite so benign, and as I turn away from the children I feel myself relax–just from looking at the screen!–and it is so creepily similar to the way the junkie’s arm went slack after the needle was depressed in those cautionary 1970’s after-school specials that I do something very brave indeed. I snap down the brand-new lid.
“I guess that can wait,” I tell them, blinking a little in the strange atmosphere of unmediated offline reality. “Now, what?”
“Cork,” Violet mutters, pulling her thumb out and pointing upwards.
“Follow me!” Paris yells, bounding up the stairs. In the kitchen we find what you would expect to find when the words “Phoebe” and “milk” and “floor” are in the same sentence. A tide of 2% has swept across the table and is dripping into a spreading pool below. White droplets speckle every visible vertical surface: They have sprayed up the legs of the chairs and table, across the front of the fridge and dishwasher, and across the glass of the French doors leading outside.
Kneeling with a handful of paper towels, I feel a twinge of comradely sympathy for the murderer who tries to mop up some grisly scarlet Rorschach pattern before the FBI bangs on his door. If a forensic expert were to screen my kitchen for incriminating traces of dairy products, I’d be headed for the big house.
“Sorry, Mummy,” says the three-year-old reprobate, getting down on all fours to help.
“Never mind,” I tell her, and I genuinely mean it. After months of grueling whininess, Phoebe has emerged into the sunny uplands, and no amount of spilled milk is going to get me to cry.
Actually, I did my crying when the computer suddenly died. Everyone knows someone who knows someone to whom this has happened, and I am here to tell you that everything someone says is accurate. First there is panic, and a whacking noise as someone bangs the keys and they availeth not. Then comes disbelief and repeated cries of, “this is ridiculous,” and “I don’t believe it,” and “oh, man, what am I going to do?” A short period of grieving follows, as you reflect on all the unanswered e-mails and unfinished proposals for articles and bestselling trilogies that died with the hard drive, and then–O bliss!–comes acceptance and liberation. The reproachful e-mails have vanished into the ether; long passages of hard-won, too-clever prose have vaporized, and you are free! You can be born again in Version 10.3.6!
Meanwhile, it is the fourth week in November and however much the Macintosh people would like to set up a new computer for you, Mrs. Gurdon, it’s a busy time of year and, well, would late next week be all right?
It is. As a result, Thanksgiving weekend is wonderfully quiet. The streets are deserted, and when we come in from bracing outdoor walks, not once do we find a phone message that needs returning. With no e-mails, there’s no temptation to crouch before the glowing screen, surfing aimlessly. In fact, the hum of technology is so markedly absent that for a few days we return to a kind of pre-industrial agrarian existence, inasmuch as such a thing is possible in an urban townhouse. Out come the board games. Logs brought in from actual rural areas crackle expensively in the fireplace. The kitchen looks like something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, minus the headcheese.
“I am thankful for blueberries,” Phoebe remarks as she digs her fork into a slice of pumpkin pie.
“I am thankful for my family,” says Violet loyally, and everyone loudly seconds her.
“I’m thankful about Lawrence,” Molly puts in. Lawrence is a seven-year-old whose education we recently began sponsoring.
“Me too,” Paris says. “But where is he going to sleep?”
“He’s not going to sleep here,” Molly laughs. “He lives in Uganda, silly.”
Paris takes a swipe at her, and then turns to me, worried. “I was going to ask you something about him.”
The phone rings, and my husband goes out of the room to get it.
“Please may I have more pie?”
“First finish the–”
“Oh, yes!” Paris remembers. “Is Lawrence a Democrat?”
“Paris, how can it–” I begin, dismayed, thinking that now it really has gone too far, this partisanship that surrounds us, that an eight-year-old boy would want to know the politics of a boy living in Kampala. How can it matter, why would he ask such a thing? Then it occurs to me that I don’t actually know.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because if he is,” Paris says cheerfully, pulling out of his pocket an Altoids box decorated with a kicking donkey which someone gave my husband at the Democratic convention, “he might like this as a present!”
“You,” I say with relief, grabbing my son and giving him a squeeze, “are a fantastic boy.”
“I’ve just got off the phone with my father,” my husband says, coming back into the room. “He says he’s left two messages.”
“Impossible. Why we haven’t had a message from any–”
It dawns on me that we haven’t had a message since…October? No wonder the house has been so quiet. It turns out that a brief power outage six weeks ago mysteriously caused the answering machine in our phone system, which we don’t use, to leap into life and override the message system from the phone company, which we do use. I approach my office with trepidation, and see for the first time a tiny, rapidly blinking red light on the side of the phone.
There are thirty-one messages dating back weeks, starting with:
“Hi Meg, this is your mother. Could you please call–?“