Growing up with an alcoholic father proved alienating for me. I never shared with my friends (what few I enjoyed) the details about my home: the fights, the drunken rants, the inconsistency of verbal and emotional abuse. I, instead, embraced loneliness by checking out stacks of books from the library and turning their pages to travel through the world outside safely.
My father is a simple man – a lower middleclass mechanic who overhauled gun systems for the military as a civilian. While he knew enough about the machines and technology he worked with, his own alienation from the real world offered little in the way of technological escape for his children. He didn’t give in to our demands for cable television until I was almost fifteen. When kids spoke about Nickelodeon and MTV at school, I turned the subject away to something else. I didn’t want them mistaking my father’s stubbornness for us being too poor to afford good TV programming.
Luckily, my father did recognize that as I advanced in school (my brother was already full grown and out of the house), I would need the Internet to complete research for my papers and projects. The added benefit is that it alleviated him having to shuttle me back and forth to libraries. It took him a while to understand that the encyclopedias he had bought from a door-to-door salesman were so much out of date that much of the scientific information was completely wrong – had been proven false. He didn’t want to be the reason his brilliant daughter flunked a grade because of an improper citation.
My dad took me to Best Buy and bought the cheapest computer he could find. And then he added Internet to our cable bill and bought a dial-up modem. We only had one phone line in the house, so I was cautioned to only log on to the Internet when it was absolutely necessary, complete my research, check my email, and log off. He didn’t want to miss any important or emergency phone calls because I was hogging the line. You never knew what could happen.
Little did he know what I could do with the Internet. Teenagers too young to drive yet, my friends and I would have sleepovers and spend all night in chat rooms and on Instant Messenger (IM), reaching out to the mature world we couldn’t yet physically inhabit. Everyone had screen names already, and I thought long and hard about what mine would be when I finally joined the digital age. I couldn’t wait that first night to log on in my upstairs bedroom, to chitchat with all my friends, with boys, with strangers, about music and literature and what happened at school that day. I thought if I just logged on really late at night, after midnight, and chatted until four, my father would be asleep and wouldn’t know the better of it.
I should have known better actually. Growing up in an alcoholic family has its risks, its inconsistencies for families, but those become strength for the drinker. The drinker never loses the capacity to catch you off guard. My father identified my plan early on – I’ve always been a really loud typist and it didn’t help that my computer and keyboard were right over my parents’ bedroom. Once my father realized I was on the Internet all night – doing who knows what – he would silently interrupt my transactions but lifting the phone and then slamming it in its cradle in the downstairs kitchen. A few times, I would wait a few minutes and log back on, thinking he was asleep, because he hardly made a noise. And then I’d hear the slam again. I got into the habit of starting all of my IM conversations, “If it says I’ve logged off, don’t worry. I’ll be back on.”
It became traumatizing, another kind of mental abuse. Having felt so alone in my day-to-day life, reaching out through a screen and just enjoying a few hours chatting with people at an age where I really needed it helped me look forward to the nights; look forward to something positive. I tried to convince my father I was doing research and that he was ruining my schoolwork but the power he had over me and my emotions was more important.
My IM life proved short lived. Most of my friends soon considered me a liar – I usually was never able to log back on once my dad interrupted service the first time. And many just quit even initiating conversations with me online. What was the point?
Now I’m happy to report that I have my own uninterrupted high-speed Internet in my own apartment and my research goes off without a hitch. On the other hand, my father is still opposed to technology he can’t understand and would never use – my mother still hasn’t been able to persuade him in their mid-seventies that she needs a computer and the Internet to stay connected.
My mother asked the family to chip in for a Kindle for her this year – she loves to read and we all have one already. I had to break the news right before Christmas that we couldn’t buy one – without Internet access and little interaction with the outside world and its plethora of Wifi hotspots, she wouldn’t be able to set up an Amazon account with a credit card and download books. Even if she did it on the sly, my father would be livid if he found out. It broke my heart when I told her and saw it myself – her look of alienation, her wish for some escape, the yearning for connection to the outside world.
I keep thinking about this leading passage I wrote about my father in my first workshopped piece for the MFA program during the recent two-week residency. With Hurricane Irene moving toward my area, I made sure to stop by my parents’ house on Friday to pick up my camp stove and propane for any power outages, so I can still stick tomy strict diet of fish, chicken and turkey and produce if the lights go out. I’m such my father’s daughter, and I thought I’d share this lead-in with all of you, which will become part of my thesis/book, in how many years it takes to complete. This lead describes the preparations my father made for the turn of the centry and the chaos it was meant to cause, and then describes his vindication when those prepared items were useful during Hurricane Isabel, which hit a few years ago. What is it about these I-named storms! Enjoy and stay safe!
My father silently prepared for the turn of the century in our concrete basement. None of us really went down there anyway, unless it was to run a load of laundry. Everything was always there as it had been, if you happened to glance without a reason.
But once the millennium moved towards us more fervently, my father began saving old Pepsi two-liter bottles and filling them with water, then storing them on the top shelves in the dark northeast corner. He guarded them with front-faced canned goods. He also saved an old grill, some blankets and varied boxes of non-perishable pasta meals. I’m surprised I never even noticed, but my father wasn’t someone to gloat. He was a planner and preparer, and he tried his best not to speak about his plans: None of us were worried, so why should he be?
The millennium came and went and those canned goods, that water, that grill stayed on their shelves, just living in a continous state of unuse.
My father’s preparation became justified when, a year later, we suffered a hurricane of odd proportion for Maryland, which rattled the windows until they sang opera. We woke up to mild destruction, including felled trees, flooding and road closures. Water and electricity blacked out for an indefinite amount of time. While Baltimore Gas and Electric worked to remedy the situation, my father boiled water from the two-liter bottles in a pot on his catastrophe charcoal grill in the backyard for morning coffee. We used up bacon and hot dogs from the semi-cold fridge and made pigs in a blanket for lunch and hamburgers for dinner. I read as much as I could at night until my book light ran out of battery power, and then I would join my father on the back porch to listen to the night sounds and the police calls coming up on my father’s old scanner without much speaking.
My father glowed afterward and would often boast about our survival during the hurricane’s aftermath, smiling and laughing and hitting my knee. “We did pretty well for not having any water or electricity! It’s just like camping!”