The Joys and Sorrows of the Electronic Globe


I am spending Thanksgiving in Rome. I give thanks to the global internet for making it possible to write these words 5,185 miles away from the turkey my mother and daughter are cooking in Dickinson. The students I am teaching for the University of Mary are down the hall Skyping their families back home. We live in an age of technological miracles. How is it that humans can zip around the planet this way and communicate more or less effortlessly over vast distances? If our civility and peacefulness and generosity of spirit were equal to our technological wizardry, the world would now be approaching utopia. But while we give thanks for the abundance of our lives, radical Islamists are cutting the heads off people including American journalists, they regard as infidels. And we, admittedly, are killing Islamists we regard as evil doers with drone strikes and cruise missiles. As humans overcome space, the paradoxes of human nature become more biting. We can send video of stupid pet tricks to the far corners of the planet effortlessly, and free, but we cannot get water to dying people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Just as I wrote that last sentence, my computer "rang," and Skype announced that my daughter was video calling. And suddenly there she was, sitting at the kitchen table of the house I grew up in in Dickinson, not quite clear as a bell, but a hundred times more clear than when Neil Armstrong bounced down onto the surface of the moon. I could see her expressions as if I were sitting across that table from her. I could see, for example, that she got a good night of sleep in her first night in North Dakota. Good news for a busy college student at the end of a hard semester, and for her doting father who worries that she studies too hard.

We talked for 45 minutes, for free. For free! How is this even possible? If you had said to me when I was a junior in college (1975) that the day would come when you could talk free for most of an hour between Rome and North Dakota, I would have said, "Never gonna happen." If you had said that there would be video, too, free, I would have said, "You've been reading too much science fiction." But there she was, laughing, telling stories, talking about the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, asking me about my flight to Rome, etc. Behind her I could see my mother bustling about the kitchen making her famous pumpkin chiffon pie for tomorrow (I wrote this on Thanksgiving eve). Mother is the epitome of domestic efficiency, and—if the truth be told—she is a kind of kitchen Nazi who does not welcome help when she is hard at cooking, baking, or clearing up. She was cracking eggs while my daughter was cracking jokes, and from time to time Mother would chime in from four or ten feet away with a wise crack of her own, or "refute" something my daughter was saying. They have the most amazing love for each other that I have ever seen between grandmother and granddaughter, but they are neither of them very sentimental in that love. They tease and jostle each other in a kind of running dialogue. When Mother said something particularly opinionated, I could actually see my daughter raise her eyebrows for her father's benefit. Fortunately, there is no recording of the video conference.

I was telling my daughter about a field trip I have planned for my students on Monday—to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome where the River Tiber meets the Mediterranean. I told her one of the things I want these students to see is the place where St. Augustine's beloved mother Monica died. There is a famous passage about it in Augustine's Confessions. My daughter is a classics major—Latin and Greek—and so before I had really begun my description she was telling me where Monica was finally buried in Rome, and that in that church we could also find a painting by Caravaggio. So my 20-year-old daughter in the middle of the plains of western North Dakota was teaching her father, the teacher, half way around the world. 

So now as I write these words in the aftermath of that sweet conversation I feel bittersweet. On the one hand, I am so thankful that I was able to connect tonight (their today) with the two women who mean most to me. To see my mother separating egg yolks from egg whites, and waving her wooden spoon mock-menacingly at my daughter when she disputed some anecdote, while my child rolled her eyes and laughed with pure joy, was a great delight and comfort. It was almost as if I were in that kitchen. I could see the stairs up to the second floor. I could see the big kitchen window and the snow-strewn yard beyond, and that wonderful glaring white light of North Dakota on a cold crisp November day. I was with them in some genuine way, and it was infinitely more familiar and intimate than a long distance telephone call. And yet…

As I write the last of these words, I am overcome with sadness. Being away from them during my favorite holiday of the year (theirs too) was going to be hard, and I had worked up some pretty strong stoicism to get through this. In some sense it would have been easier to remain resolutely in this zip code than to peer in virtually on theirs. I wanted to hug my child. You know that hug that redeems everything in life. Even a four second hug can serve as a full top-off on love. There she was, tantalizingly close, full of youth and life and joy and love, eating the occasional barbecue potato chip, as if we were not engaged in spectacular form of techo-badminton. But she was also untouchable. It felt like one of those ghost stories in which something or someone is completely "real" until you reach out to hold them, but then your hand goes right on through the illusion. There is a story in Virgil's Latin epic the Aeneid (Book Two, I think) that works like this. If we were still Skyping, my daughter would now inform IM me the passage, with a slightly (and carefully) raised eyebrow that her father could have forgotten precisely where to locate the passage. So now I have decided to have my U Mary students read one of the twelve books of the Aeneid next week.

So here I am, sitting in an office on the Rome campus of the University of Mary. One by one the students have shuffled off to bed. The campus is quiet (it is only quiet when they sleep!). It is now technically Thanksgiving here in Italy, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. But I'm not really here now, though the fingers that type these words are tired. I am across the world at that kitchen table in Dickinson, listening to the love contest between the two women who flank my heart, and contributing the occasional sentence. I can smell that pie.
And I am immensely thankful, in a way that I would not be if I were there, but with a wash of sadness like the vanilla mother is swirling through those beaten eggs.