Essay : It's a generational thing – home is where high-tech doesn't work
And so, once again, I spent the majority of my August vacation on the phone with Comcast. This is nothing new. Every time I come home to visit my parents, whether it's midsummer or Christmas time, a whole slew of tech issues await me. Last time it was the brand new Apple laptop that wouldn't turn on because it had never been plugged in. The time before it was the cell phone that was never answered because the ringer wasn't turned on. As if my parents actually wanted to see me.
The last time I was home, this July, there was a lightning storm that knocked out the telephone, internet, and television with one strike: the true Comcast Triple Play. This meant that I came home this week to an entirely new system: two new phones and an answering machine that didn't answer, an internet cable that didn't carry any signal, a "brand-new" wireless router with a significantly decreased range, and HD channels that "didn't look very HD," according to my dad.
Sweet. Nice checklist. After sitting at a desk all summer, the last thing I wanted was to look at a computer or pick up a phone. I longed for a project with a definite end and immediate rewards, something I didn't have to schedule two weeks in advance. I know, I thought, I'll go mow the lawn to get some exercise and get my mind off all things tech or work related. Oh wait, Comcast's solution to the cable outage was to strew a cable wire across the front lawn. Guess that's out of the question then. "Isn't this a little dangerous?" "Nevermind that, the 6 pm Sportscenter's on in 10 minutes."
Of course, even when things are going right with all the technology, I'm still on call 24/7. Ever since I was old enough to go away for the weekend, I've gotten calls, not to see if I got there all right, but angry calls about how many remotes were needed to turn on the TV and how all we got this for was to watch the Sox, and somehow we can't even do that. Now, living in New York, I still get calls from both parents about various tech issues, meaning that the calls to Comcast are not merely an Island phenomenon.
About once a month, something happens to the picture on the TV, and I have to sift through my dad's explanation of the problem: "Now they're squishy." "No, that didn't do it, now they're all stretched." "Now their heads are cut off." I quickly get online and start reading FAQs and tech forums, hoping to find a solution before my dad finally follows through on his threat of walking up the road to the head of Comast's mansion and banging on the door to see if his cable is working. "He's probably got a dish anyway," I tell him.
For every problem I solve, another two seem to pop up. During this summer's European soccer championship, I had to explain to my dad how to use the DVR, both how to record and then watch it back. "Record it first, then I'll tell you how to watch it. One thing at a time." The other night my friend was over watching the Red Sox and re-wound at one point during the game to watch a play again. "Now how'd you do that?" my dad asked.
Oh God, don't show him that, I thought. I'm not even sure how that works. I could just imagine the call, "I was trying to use the fast-forward and now it's been paused on this guy's shrunken, cutoff head for a week."
When I'm home from the city, the only activities that interest me are either manual labor or relaxing. So, I go sit on the back porch and try not to look at the overgrown backyard or the vines threatening to tear the roof off. As hard as I try, I can't help running through a quick inventory in my head: 1. Lawn either overgrown or charred, check, 2. At least one issue with Comast, check, 3. Christmas lights still up – or I guess already up at this point, check.
Enough. I have to be able to relax for at least a few minutes, I tell myself and finally manage to tune everything out. I have to at least momentarily disconnect, disidentify myself as a series of zeros and ones, and read something that isn't in manual form. To just be alone with my thoughts and the breeze and the sounds of the waves, and the offensively invasive dull roar of the cropper chopper.
I imagined what their infrared technology was picking up around my house. Not much wireless signal, that's for sure. The thought of all that state-of-the-art, fiber optic, or whatever, technology wasted checking out my tan – "Don't judge it, I've been inside all week on the phone!" – and not being used in my wireless router and cable cord, took my wandering mind right back to technical issues this "vacation" was supposed to help me tune out.
Whenever I come – especially in the summer – I spend the few weeks before imagining the Island as a place where time will stand still. Living in New York, I find myself constantly searching for an end, for a moment when things actually stop. Some nights, I just sit in the park when it's empty and no-people watch. Of course, as soon as I do get home, I realize that there's plenty to do and plenty that I want to do as well. Instead of a chance to recharge, I usually end up going back to the city more tired than when I left. And sure, sometimes I do envy the people who come for a week, a month, a summer, and can actually relax when they're here, but to me, to notice the creaky floorboard, the invading vine or the squished head means more than any "vacation" ever could. It means home.
Sam Griswold lives in New York, although much of his tech rehab business takes place at home in West Tisbury.