I am making plans to go home for the holidays. And like many of you, I will be facing a dearth of my personal creature comforts. Specifically, my parents live in a small, rural Texas town where Internet coverage is almost as spotty as your chance of getting a double bed under their roof if you didn't have the good sense to reserve it on the Fourth of July. Somewhere between where the last Starbucks recedes into the distance and the road is overtaken by a giant canopy of pine trees, my iPhone turns into a functionless brick.
The only "Cloud" is the one formed by refinery smoke that could guide you to the heart of downtown faster than any GPS -- if it, too, weren't rendered useless by the Deliverance-inspired surroundings. Approaching the now-familiar final mile, my monologue to my phone is not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis' pledge during the waterfall scene in The Last of the Mohicans: "Stay alive no matter what occurs! I will find you!" In this case, it's not the French and Indian war that separates us but the Internet dead zone that makes me a reluctant Luddite for the extent of my stay. This past summer, my 6-year-old discovered the disconnected horror first-hand while making the five-hour trip to her grandparents' with an iPad in tow. On cue, coverage was lost along with her comprehension of the world she knows to date. The conversation in our car went something like this:
"Mom, Barbie.com isn't working."
"I know, Baby. Past this point, there is no Internet."
"TURN BACK! TURN BACK!"
Had she not been strapped into a car seat, a dramatic rendering might include a shot of my child's desperate gaze from the back car window, hands splayed on the glass, watching helplessly as the last remains of civilization slip over the horizon.
Instead, we experienced this on the inside.
My parents are in their late 70s. And while they still run their own business and know who Ricky Gervais is, when it comes to technology, they are comfortably and voluntarily in the Dark Ages. In fact, the last decade of my life has been spent trying to get them to modernize their existence (as well my own during extended visits) with very little, if any, effect. Presented with my crazy, newfangled ideas such as actually utilizing their available satellite Wi-Fi, they just laugh, shake their heads and pour me another cup of watery Folgers. ("That Starbucks you buy us is too strong!") They are the few, the proud, the tech hold-outs, happy to exist on a steady information diet of whatever is in the local newspaper and anything on television produced by Dick Wolf.
And Steve Jobs is no Dick Wolf!
To their credit, they come from a camp still financially paralyzed by the days when calling long distance was the monetary equivalent of dialing up Mars -- if it ran a planetary dollar-per-minute sex chat line. And although they were both infants during the Depression, they guard frivolities such as their thermostat's setting like the Hope Diamond. (As in they "hope" you don't screw with it in the middle of the night and force them to wake up, walk to the other end of the house and turn it back to the standard house temperature, also know as "whatever it is outside.") To them, technology is another such indulgence. To say they approach modern conveniences with some reluctance is like saying stray dogs are reluctant to approach Michael Vick. To demonstrate, below, a rough timeline of my parents' electronic metamorphosis:
Late '90s: No cable, but they manage to procure the largest television in the state of Texas (depth and width included) with individual pixels the size of playing cards.
Early 2000s: Basic cable, but no Internet service. Around this time, I buy them their first home computer that doesn't look like something from War Games. For five years, it is used solely for Solitaire and as a handy surface for Post-it notes.
2005: Dial up lands on the shore of their lake house, as does a crisp, flat-screen television -- with all the "useless" channels (MTV, VH1 and any cartoon networks) blocked. Sorry, grandkids! Hope you like Law & Order!
2006: Satellite connection arrives via a two-year gift contract but due to general trust issues (possible additional service fees, Wi-Fi causing cancer) it remains paid-in-full, but untouched.
2008: As a baby step into Wi-Fi use, I buy my stepfather a Nook for Father's Day.
2009: Dial up reigns and when visiting, I am advised to "hang out in the lobby of the nearby Motel 8 and do my Internet work." When I ask my mother how she's been viewing photos of her grandchild all these years on dial up, she responds, "I see a nose, then maybe an eye, and I put it all together in my head!"
2010: My stepfather calls and announces, "I finally took the Nook out of the box. I love it!"
2011: Thanks to barriers broken by Nook, Wi-Fi is regularly utilized, although due to fear it has to cost something, it's used on an "as needed" basis. "Just tell me when you want to check your email, and I'll flip the switch on," my stepfather offers. My answer: ALL THE TIME.
Enter Angry Birds. During our summer visit, my daughter introduced the game to my stepfather courtesy of the iPad. He immediately became addicted, the two of them slaughtering pigs the likes not seen since the movie Carrie. Okay, so I lied a little and said it required Wi-Fi to play it. Not so mysteriously, the switch remained in the "on" position for the duration of the visit.
So as 2012 approaches, we happily usher in a new era of connectivity at my parents' home. And as I sit by fire, checking my emails and visiting my favorite online haunts, the sound of pigs and birds screaming in the background while Jerry Orbach laments over the remains of a dead hooker, with a sip of the world's weakest coffee, it is as clear as the signal that sustains us: There's no place like home.