I’ve read books on the proper raising of both children and dogs, sometimes finding identical sentences in both. I know that I will get more out of my child and my pet if I “Catch them doing good”; this is to say commend them on doing the right thing rather than constantly harping on the things they get wrong. Praise Daughter to the skies for getting her jeans in the hamper, then casually mention how she might want to use this newly acquired skill on Mount Dirty-Sock looming at the end of her bed. Coo and croon to the dog when he manages to stay in something resembling “Heel” for a minute at a time, but not haranguing him about the other twenty minutes of the walk where he is a handsome speedboat and I am a hapless water-skier. I like to think we are all happier when we’re caught being our best.
It never occurred to me that the computer longed for positive feedback as well.
All these years, I should have stopped typing mid-sentence, gazed down fondly at the zip-drive and purred something like “Look at you, saving! What a wonderful saver you are!” I should have brought the keyboard little scented hand-towels to bathe its abused keys, especially the “A”, “S” and “E” keys, all the while commending its work ethic. And, as it turns out, I should have taken the modem out for lunch, someplace a little fancy, just to say “Thank you” for all its hard work. Just because I don’t completely understand what it does, doesn’t mean I can’t say thanks. But, as with children and pets, electronics -—if not given positive attention -– will arrange to get themselves some negative attention. And they will usually wait for a three-day weekend.
The family got home from dinner on Sunday and I drifted in to the office to check email. I noted the last message had come in three hours before, which seemed a little odd. We’re not Prom King and Queen, mind you, but three hours is an awfully long time to go without some form of incoming missive, even if it’s only an offer for cheap diet pills or a chance to date lonely Russian ladies. It’s a strange world indeed when one is alarmed by a lack of spam. I tried refreshing the email and got the dreaded red X across the "checking Messages" line. We were not connecting. I switched off the computer and switched it back on again but the mailbox still snubbed me.
“E-mail’s down!” I shouted to Consort, who was supervising teeth-brushing.
Over the sound of a small girl explaining why no one else her age had to brush their teeth every single day, he shouted back. “Try re-booting it!”
“I did that!” I said, faintly aggrieved that he’d even ask. Consort knows that switching something off and on and hitting the side of it with my palm are my only electronic repair tools. I thunked the side of the computer. Twice. The email remained mute.
“Check if we can get online!”
I opened the browser and was rewarded with an unlovely message telling me that either the page I wanted was unavailable or we weren’t online. Since I’m guessing that Google hadn’t taken the weekend off, it stood to reason that we were down across the board. I felt the first twinge of panic in my lower spine. I like checking e-mail. It’s peaceful and costs me nothing. If an e-mail leads to unpeaceful thoughts or indicates bad news or is some sort of a bill I simply click down to the next email, which is usually from my mother and includes a picture of a cat wearing a tam. Consort came in the office and turned the computer on and off again a few times. He prodded at various intimate bits of the computer. He pointed to a light which was yellow.
“See that light? Means the network is down,” he pronounced.
I squinted at the light, trying to remember if I had ever looked at it before in my life. “Isn’t it always yellow?” I finally asked.
“Yeah, but it shouldn't be blinking.”
Sometimes, I think he just makes things up to ensure his job security.
I went off to play with Daughter, Galicia and the dog while Consort settled in with a glass of wine and a speaker-phone for the inevitable call to Tech Support. I asked him to give India my regards. An hour later, our daughter and our foster-kitten were in their beds, the dog was exhausted from entertaining them both, and I sidled in to the office to hear what Consort had learned from Rajit. The wine-glass was drained. Consort was huddled under the desk poking at wires. He stuck his head out.
“Apparently the connection is fine to the pole. Neither laptop is working in here so the problem comes from inside the house." He was using the same voice you'd use to tell the babysitter the maniac’s call was coming from the kid’s room. Then he added, “The modem might need replacing.”
We both stared at the modem, which appeared to be working. Only now I understood this was only a simulacrum of a working modem, its blinking yellow light a mockery of the robust digital health we had all taken for granted.
“Um. How long will it take to replace?” I asked hopefully, irrationally convinced that a DSL modem might be one of those items Consort insists on stocking in multiples, like Murphy’s Oil soap and capers.
He blew out a contemplative breath, the same breath my mechanic blows out before he explains that the car needs a liver transplant. “If it’s the modem, and we won’t know for another day or so, I’ll have to order a new one.”
A silence permeated the office. I said slowly, “So, for the foreseeable future, we are going to live like it’s…1995?”
I found the bottle of wine and got another glass. I poured each of us a restorative volume of something red and contemplated my fate. Consort was only mildly inconvenienced. He had a Blackberry and the computer at work. I, however, was Helen Keller. I needed to let people know I’d be unreachable by email for the unforeseeable future. I started with my mother because we’re one of those modern families who discuss the news of the world through email. “News of the world”, of course, mostly means “Pictures of cats in tams”, but on the off chance the most recent hatted-cat photo also included a message along the lines of “...By the way, I’m typing this from the ground, having fallen down two days ago...”, it behooved me to let her know I was off-line.
To my book editor, I left an email message through my phone. The phone is very old, as far as cell-phones go, and was never purchased with an eye towards texting. The keys are small and ungainly and the only way to put in punctuation tends to make me call voice-mail. I was planning to write:
My computer’s modem is broken. Until such time as it is either fixed or replaced, you can reach me at this email. Barring that, you can always reach me on the phone.
Seventeen attempts later -- three of which accidentally led to me checking my voice mail -- I decided I was okay with this:
B Puter daed finD me hereor call/ q
This left me with the rest of the world. Did I need to tell anyone else I wasn’t getting email? I doubted the Russian mail-order brides or Viagra-vendors would be too concerned but I had a bunch of people who had kindly offered to help with the book. Some were reading it to give me constructive criticism. Some were reading it to help move the almighty blurb process forward. Both were necessary and much appreciated. If anyone wrote to me with either comments or a suggestion about who they might know who could blurb, I wanted to answer them in respectable haste. Otherwise, I’d look ungrateful. If the comments they gave were anything but “WHAT A MARVELOUS BOOK! DON’T CHANGE A THING!”, any silence on my side might be construed as pouting. While I have been known to pout, I wanted to make damn sure I’m not getting tarred with the pouting brush when I’m just a victim of a temperamental modem. I called one of the readers:
(Ring. Ring. Sounds of humans at play in the background.)
QUINN: Hi, it’s Quinn. Am I interrupting something?
READER: No, we're all hanging out in the back yard enjoying the long weekend. What’s up?
QUINN: I just wanted you to know that my modem is down for at least a couple of days. So I can’t get email.
READER: Oh. Okay.
(Silence, as we both listened to children flinging water balloons at each other.)
QUINN: You know, in case you had read the book or anything. Had some notes. Didn’t want you think I was pout...
READER: It’s right next to my bed. This last week was a real bitch, but I’ll start it tonight..
QUINN: No, no. Don’t worry. Whenever.
QUINN: It’s just that the modem isn’t blinking. Or is, or something. Really, no rush on those notes.
READER: Sure. Hey, why don’t I get the manuscript right now, start skimming through it while the coals heat up.
QUINN: No, please. It’s Memorial Day, for God’s sake.
QUINN: My modem really is broken.
READER: I know.
His goodbye to me had a sympathetic tone I didn’t like.
Consort called me from the office. The light which had been blinking was now not blinking. Whatever the problem, it had fixed itself for the time being. Consort clicked the Inbox and dozens of emails flew in, nearly all of them promising me relief from my problem with erectile dysfunction. Arrowhead water wanted to be paid. There were some petitions to sign. There were no notes or offers of blurbs. I noticed one email which required my immediate attention. Alertly, I opened it and was rewarded with a story of a King Charles Cavalier spaniel that is fostering three baby bunnies in England.
I’m finally back in the real world.