The Flicker of Home

This essay was originally published in The Yale Herald on October 5, 2012.

Once, while I was waiting for a website to load, I gave myself a haircut. I’d wandered into the bathroom, where I encountered a pair of scissors, and absentmindedly began snipping, vaguely hoping to achieve a sort of layered effect. After idly pruning an inch from the left side, then an inch and a quarter from the right, then a compensatory half inch from the left, and so on and so on for nearly 10 minutes, I looked in the mirror and realized that my long, even hair was now above my shoulders and grotesquely lopsided. I hurtled down the stairs and displayed the catastrophe to my mom, who told me life would go on. Left no choice but to accept my folly and trudge back up the creaking wooden steps, I plopped back down in front of the computer, where my webpage had just finished loading.

My house, nestled quietly in a hill town of western Massachusetts, was built in 1790. Found among its many quaint relics of the past are sagging ceilings, dusty fireplaces, and a granite horse hitching post complete with rusty iron ring. And also, dial-up.

Dial-up (how easily we forget!) is an endangered and early form of Internet; it enables a computer to connect to cyberspace through a telephone line. Often the telephone and internet modem share the same line, which means that they cannot both be used at once. With dial-up, a page of Google search results takes a steaming mug of Swiss Miss or a thorough tooth brushing to load. This pace of life forced me away from the computer screen and into an only child’s world of creativity. While I made pop-up cards near my dad’s slippered feet, the chirping and chirring of the internet modem harmonized with the deep, rhythmic tolls of the centuries-old grandfather clock, the clock’s brass pendulum and the copper wires of telephone line measuring out their asymmetric beats. Like the clock, these wires were old and never upgraded, so that snow and thunderstorms and even passing showers could sever us from the grid—no landline, no Internet, not even a horse hitched to the horse hitching post. Luckily, we had cross-country skis, so that when winter and its crisp, sweet air delivered an especially generous load of snow, my parents and I could slice chopstick tracks into the unplowed road to a neighbor’s house a morning’s journey away.

Six years ago, the Massachusetts government officially announced that it would expand broadband service to the whole western end of the state. My house must have been in a forgotten corner, so impossibly tucked away from it all that no broadband or DSL service thought to bother. When I researched DSL a year or two later, I found that houses in Ashfield center, a two-mile jog away, were eligible. But the wooden clapboard house at 732 Beldingville Rd., with its tilted floorboards, wild turkeys, and me, was not.

On the last day of this past August, I received an email from my dad. I read and reread the subject line: “WIFI ! FREE AT LAST !!” I felt immediately queasy. A few days later as I was speaking to him over the phone, he asked me, “Can you guess what I’m doing right now?” He quickly filled the pause. “Checking email!” he said, like a child who had just discovered he could play drums and sing at the same time.

Sitting in my dorm room with my iPhone to my ear, for a moment I didn’t know what to say. For seven years, my dad dropped me off and picked me up from my middle and high schools, both in a town 20 minutes away. Throughout this time, it had been a never-ending battle of luck to get in touch with my parents, who both worked at home—my mom an artist, my dad a Boston-born Sinophile. If I called during certain hours of the morning or evening, I invariably heard the sneering croak of the busy tone; between nine and noon, I knew that my dad was reading articles online (probably Chinese newspapers), and after 8:30 p.m., my mom was deep into her nightly tête-à-tête with her sister in Beijing. My parents have never had cell phones, so I had no choice but to wait, smelly and tired, until I could finally call to go home.

At school I took advantage of the high-speed internet, with its research databases and seedy online shows, but once home, I retreated to my bedroom desk, only venturing to prostrate myself before our desktop’s dial-up in times of dire need. During school breaks, particularly in college, I would drive to the town library and sit outside in the car, edged right up against the curb to lap up the public wifi. I remember one December evening sitting in my little Honda on Ashfield’s empty main street with an ice pack bonnet swaddled around my swollen cheeks, my wounded gums still recovering from wisdom tooth surgery. Cradling my MacBook in the down folds of my knee-length parka as light frost embroidered itself on the windows, I Skyped my best friend.
A palm-sized box, about the size of a deck of cards, now crouches next to our home computer. It receives a 4G signal from a Verizon tower in a town five miles away, little twinkling lights indicating the strength of the reception, with three blue lights signifying a strong signal, one light indicating a weak one, and a yellow glow warning of imminent failure.

“I pound the key and WHAO! Everything is there!” spurted my mom over the phone, her faint Chinese lilt not quite “whoa” or “wow,” but “whah-ow.” My dad, in his own fashion, wrote in an email to a former law buddy of his: “A flurry of wifi pixie-dust, and troglodytic Holmeses emerge half-blind into the brilliant cyber daylight. So many forbidden fruits now within reach… perhaps happier in the cave?”

Away from the blinding cyber daylight, the cave had become home. The stoic house with its puffing chimney was my inviolable retreat. With friends scattered across different states and Facebook and YouTube commoners’ luxuries, I was happily disconnected, buried in scratchy, hand-knitted blankets in front of the blazing wood stove, sipping chamomile mint tea in one hand and stroking the feather-soft ears of my golden lab with the other, my dad reaching over me occasionally to stoke the coals. I worry that Verizon has shattered this reclusive bliss, placing our dial-up’s formerly forbidden fruits within reach.

I’m comforted, however, knowing that as I pace within these five secure bars of campus wifi, our new 4G gadget is still victim to the hill-town elements. With our wind, rain, and godforsaken isolation, I’m told the new internet reverts quite frequently back to dial-up speed. I smiled when I heard the current colors of the flickering signal: a blue and sickish yellow-green.

Tao Tao Holmes grew up among the crickets and cows in Ashfield, Massachusetts. She can now Skype from home, but she feels guilty about this new luxury. Send her an email at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.

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