or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation

But as of 12:30 this afternoon, thanks to the intercession of my cousin Jeff and a new modem from Verizon, Plummer’s Hollow has high-speed internet once again.

BOOM. The crash of thunder jolts me out of a sound sleep. Oh shit, I mutter — there goes the DSL box.

There’s a qualitative difference between the thunder that accompanies cloud-to-cloud lightning and a cloud-to-earth strike. This was the latter: a heavy thudding crash with no echoes. And the kinds of storms that produce close strikes often sneak up quickly — just a few rumbles in the distance before a very close strike like this one. Of course, it isn’t quite as bad as it might be if the house weren’t tucked a little ways down into a hollow between two higher ridges. But we’re still less than a hundred feet below the ridgecrest, and the woods are filled with lightning-struck trees if you know how to recognize them.

I lie awake, listening to the rapidly receding rumbles: a small storm. But maybe another storm is on its way. I weigh the pros and cons of getting dressed and going up to my parents’ house in the driving rain to disconnect the magic black box that brings us — or used to bring us — high-speed internet. Closing the barn door after the horse got out, I think. It would only make me less likely to get a good night’s sleep. Hope doesn’t come easy to me.

But after half an hour or so, realizing that I wasn’t going to get back to sleep, I switch on my bedside lamp and get dressed. Only midnight! It felt as if I’d been sleeping for hours.

It’s a dark night, and for some reason I don’t feel like turning any other lights on. I like the dark. My feet feel their way up the driveway and across the slippery lawn where most of the snow has just melted off within the previous twenty-four hours. I pause at the front door to shed my shoes and set my umbrella down, then creep indoors like a cat burgler. My parents are away for the night, hence my need to look after the Plummer’s Hollow wireless network. I move through the dark farmhouse at almost normal speed, brushing the walls and doorjambs with the fingers of one hand. This is where I grew up — I could do this in my sleep. I think of the traditional blues verse:

I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark.
I can tell my rider if I feel her in the dark.

I do switch on the light in my dad’s study, squinting as I unplug everything, then gratefully return to the darkness. I guess I feel as if the darkness covers my guilt, somehow. I should have been following the weather forecasts!

Back in my own bed, I realize that sleep isn’t going to come anytime soon. I sit up and grab a book off the nightstand: Walking the Bible: A Journey By Land Through the Five Books of Moses, by Bruce Feilor. It’s a little simple-minded in parts, and the author periodically makes statements I strongly disagree with, but every time I think I’ve had enough, he comes out with another good insight, or tells another great story about an encounter with some modern-day religious fanatic, and I decide to keep reading. I read three chapters and start a fourth before I think I might be drowsy enough to give sleep another try. But I still lie awake for another couple of hours with a knot in my stomach.

By morning, I’m resigned to getting by without the internet for however long it will take us to replace the black box and go through the series of complicated steps necessary to reconstitute our little network: maybe a few days, maybe a week or two. I’ll catch up on my book reading. I’m sure both my blog readers will be able to find other things to entertain them for a while.

Glumly, I go back up to the other house to plug everything in again, on the off chance that the lighning strike didn’t disable our connection. I double-click on the Firefox icon and wait. Nope, nothing. Well, at least we should still be able to connect through the computer’s built-in modem, via dial-up — unless that too has been blown. But after ten minutes of searching through my dad’s computer, I give up, unable to find the right program.

It could be worse, I tell myself: a power blackout, for example, renders me incapable of writing altogether. It’s been so many years since I’ve composed on paper, I have trouble forming letters with a pen, and the lack of an ability to instantly erase or rearrange lines totally throws me. But before I give up for good, I click on the internet connection one more time, and suddenly there’s Google News.

It takes a few moments to sink in. September 11 Mastermind had Plans to Bomb Australia, I read. Hamas and Fatah Present New Government. Major Powers Close to Iran Sanctions Deal. I sit back in the chair with a heavy sigh. This knot in my stomach isn’t going away anytime soon.

snail 1

This weekend, we bid a fond farewell to dial-up Internet. With the invaluable assistance of my cousin-in-law Jeff, we’ve swapped 28 kilobytes for 3 megabytes per second.

For years now, Jeff and my father have been scheming about ways to get high-speed access to Plummer’s Hollow. They didn’t think that the phone company, Verizon, would be laying fiber optic cables anytime soon. But last month, a telephone line repairman out on a service call informed us that they had indeed installed a local fiber optic network this past winter. It seemed a little odd that Verizon would go to all that trouble and expense and then neglect to inform eligible customers, but once contacted, they shipped the new DSL modem willingly enough. It only remained to wait for Heidi and Jeff’s next visit — fortunately already scheduled for Labor Day weekend — since we figured we wouldn’t be able to reconfigure on our own the wireless system that Jeff had set up for us between the two houses.

We were right. On Saturday morning, Jeff muttered and puttered around for a couple hours while the sorry remnants of Hurricane Ernesto kept us all indoors. Dad and I were on hand with what you might charitably call color commentary: advice, perhaps, but only of the fatuous kind offered up by the guys in the press box who couldn’t throw a pass to save their lives. It took Jeff a little while to figure out what he had done before and undo it, but suddenly there it was: the new version of Firefox downloading from the web in seconds rather than taking half an hour. “Gee, look at that, Paw!” To say we were stunned would be an understatement. After lunch, a couple more hours sufficed for Jeff to install a new wireless network.

snail 3

On Sunday, while Jeff and Heidi’s six-year-old daughter Morgan went off to explore in the woods with my mother, the laptops came out in the living room. That’s the funny thing about computers: since they tend to be less absorbing than books, somehow their use doesn’t preclude social interaction quite the way reading a book does. On the other hand, when my parents sit together in the evening reading newspapers and magazines, they also frequently share aloud from what they’re reading, so maybe there isn’t a huge difference.

Suddenly, Morgan was back, in a state of high excitement: “There’s a snail! We found a snail! You HAVE to get pictures!”

And so I did. This was a distinctly unsluggish woodland mollusc — a snail on speed. They had picked it up somewhere down along the road, and it emerged from its shell almost immediately and began exploring my mother’s hand. While I snapped pictures, it glided rapidly from finger to finger like a circus performer, switching to other hands as they were offered.

snail 4

Ironically, living out here in the boondocks far from cable TV, we now have a faster connection than many folks in town. Jeff explained that since we’re tapping into a node less than a mile from our houses in a rural farm valley with, presumably, fewer than a dozen other Internet users, we don’t have to compete for space on the cable. In his suburban neighborhood in New Jersey, by contrast, hundreds of people might be downloading files off the Internet at any one time.

Needless to say, this has left us all feeling a little breathless and barely able to believe our good fortune. But high-speed access probably isn’t going to change our lives. Like the snail, I’ll still remain fairly slow moving and low-energy by most people’s standards. I’ll still retreat into my shell from time to time. But I’ll relish being able to explore things like Flickr slideshows and Internet radio, and I’m already appreciating the ability to dispose of mundane tasks, such as reading and answering email, more quickly.

Best of all is the fact that I no longer have to keep my computer on all the time to avoid breaking the wireless connection between the houses, as was the case when it ran through the modem in my Dad’s computer. Now, I can turn the computer off before going to bed each night and wake up in a quiet house. More than anything else, it is that new access to silence that feels luxurious.

snail 6

Click here to see all six snail pictures. If you have favorite sites on the Internet that you think I’d enjoy, I’d love to hear about them. My tastes in music run to blues, jazz, roots/world music, and modern classical.