Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The year we just spent in France is not the first time I've lived abroad. From 1991-1996 I lived in North London with Fiona. Oh, it was a heady, youthful, liberated period,filled with Grant family weddings, O'Brien roast dinners, Salsa Rosada, traditional patchwork quilting, and Jubilee Line travel accompanied by Ruth Rendell and Oasis. There were also vast numbers of parties, primly organized around themes like Magnetic Poetry, indoor fireworks and “luxury” foodstuffs, all of which tended to degenerate pleasantly into plonkfests.

It would also be fair to say that although I talked to my parents every week, I was officially estranged from my father. Reasonably enough, I now realize, it was tough for him to embrace my divorce and new “lesbian lifestyle,” no matter how essentially traditional my relationship was (and those who know both Fiona and my dad will have noticed a few spooky similarities). And I’m afraid he took it personally that I couldn’t any longer factor his desires and opinions into my life decisions.

So for a few of those five years we didn’t really talk about anything important, and if we did try, our conversations tended to degenerate unpleasantly into sulkfests. And then we both, me and the man who hand-built a wooden case for the used electric typewriter I lugged to college, discovered e-mail.

Here was a whole new way for us to talk—without having to face each other in person, without the painful tugging at heartstrings created by patronizing tones, by furrowed brows, by uncomfortable smirks, by tears. As a pastor in the habit of carefully crafting his sermons week after week, but not so much in the habit of revealing his personal uncertainties in the pulpit, my dad used this e-mail miracle to write about what he didn’t understand, what he didn’t believe in, what he worried I was losing through my choices.

On my side, I gained time. I could read his letters hot off the printer and again on the Tube. I could contemplate his meanings, take time to simmer down, take time to develop at least a little empathy. And I could use all my well-honed writing and teaching skills to educate my father about Heidi the Person (not Heidi the Daughter): my uncertainties, what I couldn’t believe in, what I was gaining through my choices.

Now, I’m not saying that “The Power of E-mail Mended our Broken Hearts, Praise the Lord!” If truth be told it was really the eventual arrival of the grandchildren that brought us all to our senses, and now, ten years later and back together again in Mid-Atlantica, computer-aided communication can’t always be relied on (my dad read the October 15 post with Rebecca McClanahan’s poem and thought I was writing about my nephew. Satchel, have I ever tried to teach you to type, dude?).

But I am saying that there are times when the combination of low-tech written word and high-tech instant messageability are just what the shaman ordered for improving communication. We chat, but we slow it down by typing. We write, but we speed it up with fiber-optics. We leave homes, but we don’t lose friends. The peasant in me is reconsidering her objections to our brave new digital world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


There was a short-lived website here called which was supposed to recreate, on the Internet, that old-fashioned opportunity to share news, ask advice and exchange opinions over the common back fences of our yards.

As useful as the Internet is, as much as I rely on e-mail in place of knocking on a neighbor's door or even picking up the phone ("Mommy, why are you calling the Superys instead of just walking across the street? That's not good for the earth."), the low-tech peasant in me still needs the face-to-face experience that a thing like can't replace, even with all those clever avatars to customize. So where am I getting it?

My hu-co* hotspots are the Ayrlawn bus stop, morning and afternoon, and in the little copier room at school. This is where I see the same folks every day, where we can pick up where we left off last time, where I can ask how to save a dying plant (sounds like it's already dead), when class photos are (today) and where to find a dozen pairs of scissors (go buy them at Staples). These neighbors will do me a favor if I'm running late, will ask me a favor if they need one, and laugh at my stupid quips about school or national politics (out of politeness if not out of actual amusement).

And these exchanges are as close to concrete as social relations can be. They're here and now, live and unedited, and they remind me (as my conversation last night with the children about
Samantha Smith, the Cold War and nuclear weapons did) that just because we can doesn't mean we should. Just because we can communicate almost solely by IM, Blackberry, email, evite, Facebook,, cell phone, and other highwired tools doesn't mean we should. Sometimes we need to look each other in the eye.

So I'm going to get up, open the front door, walk 50 yards, and say good morning to a neighbor I have not laid eyes on since we got back on August 4. And if she's not there, I'll send her the link to this post.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

the other way around

On the way from the bus stop, just the two of us, I announce the creation of my new blog to Daisy. "Why does everything have to be about Squeeze?" she asks in a tone of weary complaint.

"This blog isn't about Squeeze; it's about me and our family and whatever I think of writing about." I explain that the writing of the Squeeze book and its title poem wasn't just random, or even part of a cunning plan to invade her every classroom with Mommy's Patent Poetry Workshop.

I continue my speech. "The poem called "Squeeze" tells what I really believe about life. My universe is pretty small, but it's also pretty juicy, and I believe it's part of my job on earth to squeeze the juice out day by day."

I demonstrate by grabbing her behind and giving it a juicy goose. That gets a better reaction. Someday maybe she'll actually ask to see my boring blog.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I wish I could say that I go around with an image in mind of letters dangling from the tip of each finger—the h, j, m, n, u and y, the 7 and 8 trailing each move of my right index like the starry streak that follows the sweep of a movie magic wand.

But the passage of words from my brain to my screen seems to leap right over the keyboard: that is, I think the sentence I want to say and my fingers type it without noticing that the words are balloon or umbrella or pasteurization. That’s the job of my eyes, and if they’re watching the screen, suddenly my fingers have a lot more work, especially the right middle, because that’s the one that does the backspacing and deleting (though I had to slow way down to even figure out that it’s the right middle who’s in charge of erasing).

I’m thinking about this because Daisy will start a “keyboarding” class soon, and Duncan has learned to hunt down the llll-e-t-t-e-rs-sss of his name, and because of this poem I heard on
The Writer’s Almanac a while ago now and have not forgotten. The distance between h and two ds seems suddenly much greater than two keys.

Teaching a Nephew to Type

Because you lag already
years behind the computer-and-
otherwise-literate boys with fathers,
and your handwriting is a tangle
the teachers have grown weary
of unraveling, and because you are as close
to a son as I can manage, though nothing
about you is manageable anymore,

I am teaching you to type. The trick
is to look anywhere but down.
Your fingers are dumb birds pecking,
just follow the chart I’ve made.
We’ll begin in the thick of things,
the home row to which we’ll always
return. Little finger on a. Then tap
your way next door to s. Now

you’ve made as. Don’t think, I say.
Just watch the chart: dad sad fad
a flash a flask a lad had. Tomorrow
we’ll move on to reach and return
and the period key, but for now
just use the comma, it’s like catching
a breath, or you can type a colon,
double dot, old snake eyes, luck
in your future, meaning watch this space:
something is about to follow.

Rebecca McClanahan
Deeplight: New and Selected Poems 1987-2007. © Iris Press, 2007.