If the umbilical cord is our attachment to our mothers, it seems unfair that my relationship to my father was for so long defined by the faulty wiring of an electrical outlet in our basement.
My dad is a saver, that breed who knows how to conserve money, and one of his ways is by saving power. He shops for devices that save labor. When he bought our first computer it was the late eighties, DOS was the operating program, and the printer was one of those screaming banshees that seemed to be in pain when they pushed out paper. My dad took hold of my hands and showed me the placement of fingers on the keys, then released them and allowed me to hunt and peck on my own to type my name, build my literacy with Reader Rabbit, and use PrintMaster Pro to create a banner that read, HAPY BERTHDAY MOM!!! Behind the convex screen was a universe of electrons and chips unknown and fascinating to me, and though my dad had not fashioned it himself he had purchased it, plugged it in, and taught me to use it. The man had an immense power.
Some nights, however, when I lay in my bed trying to remain in quiet rest as the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling died out, the repetitive screeching of the printer would sound from the basement den. The man was in the dungeon at the infernal machine, firing off round after round of documents. Every slide of the ink battery across the paper was a sheep dying as I counted to non-sleep.
When I sat at the computer I grew to love this machine and forget the man who installed it. The power was in my wrists and fingers. I could demonstrate to Reader Rabbit how well I could spell. I could scale the treacherous heights of Treasure Mountain, race the Indy 500, sink a hole-in-one over a sandy dune, rescue the princess of Persia, or guide Uncle Scrooge to the golden trove deep within the pyramid. Yet in the flip of a switch those worlds collapsed in one blink. A dream shattered by the pull of a curtain.
The flip of a switch.
Through some fluke of wiring in our house, the light switches both at the top and bottom of the staircase which toggled the lighting fixture over the stairs were also connected to the outlet fixture directly beneath the staircase, the same outlet which powered our computer. I would be immersed in adventure, blinders around my eyes so that the only world existing was that of a 16-bit resemblance of another’s imagination projected in front of me. I would be taking the final lap on a flat tire, reaching the snowy peak of the mountain, capturing the perfect picture of the pink hippopotamus in the rainforest—and the screen would whimper in blackness. It was the work of my father. Due to the soft carpet floors I could not hear the approaching footsteps of my heavy dad above me until it was too late.
Not a millisecond before I would hear the flip of a switch above me, the flow to the outlet would cease, the light over the stairs would go out, the dream machine would lose consciousness, and I would scream because my soul had been ripped out my eyes. The machine and I were one, and its loss was my loss. In the darkness I hunched, a goblin slamming his fists on the desk, cursing his own father with the worst pronouncements of early childhood: “Stupid!” “Fat!” “You don’t care and you don’t know!” From the upper floor of the house where light still shone in the windows, my screams were no doubt no better than the screeching printer. I was the creature in the darkness who plugged my umbilical cord into the cold hardware, weeping over the slaughter of my hard work when at the flip of a switch my father cut off my quest. The exchange was always the same:
His reply? “Sorry, son. I forgot about the switch.”
My dad himself was a machine, able to stroll through the halls flipping switches here and there until in his wake was in shadow. He was master of his sensible domain. In a single stroll every light carelessly left on was put out, and at the end he would remove his shoes and place his wallet on the dresser, the house in order. But what made him a true master of his household was the prudence with which he heard my outrage and took it as it was: a melodramatic fit over nothing in particular. He was truly sorry when his routine upset my play, sorry as would be God in the image we fashion of an indifferent being who, in the midst of his daily hurling of lightning and thunder to stir up awe and terror, forgets to spare the household of a humble and righteous laborer.
“Why, Lord, why?”
“Because I simply can. And also I didn’t mean to. Sorry about that.”
In his very human eye, my dad was merely trying to save energy, to save money, to cut all unnecessary routes, to conserve the midnight oil. Where he walked, there was light, and where he walked not, the light was not there, and he was forgetful. He really did not know what he was doing to me. There were times when I swore he performed these executions on purpose, in hopes that I would come to terms with the lifeless screen, roll the keyboard back into the desk, get up from the chair and walk up the stairs to discover the splendor of sunlight. Not often enough.
With the passing of time, my dad came to recognize the dangers of my addiction to electronic screens. With recognition came limitations, and with disobedience, punishment. I once sat in torment on the couch while he unplugged the Nintendo, wrapped the cord around it like a noose, and locked it in his safe for a month. He still said “sorry,” but the word had new meaning. He opened the scroll and read, “we are dreadfully sorry to report that for the sake of your survival we will have to remove your favorite thing from your life. Keep in mind this is what love looks like.” He had the same intention of saving me as he had when flipping switches from one end of the house to the other, to save the family, one penny, one volt at a time. I didn’t know then that this was the continued work of a parent saving the soul of his child, pulling the plug on ingratitude, atrophy, inexperience, and a bad posture.
As I weaned myself off of these powered devices and turned my pale, catatonic face toward the light of day, my eyes adjusted and I saw my dad’s every efforts to save the family from future peril. He stacked coupons on the counter, giving us choices of where to eat from the clippings stuffed in his wallet. We went to the cheaper theater in town. All vehicles were bought used, snacks from the cheap gas station close to our house, all name-brands passed over for their cheap off brands. There were exceptions, of course, such as Honey Nut Cheerios, purchased in bulk at Sam’s Club.
My dad’s insistence on frugality was a nuisance to my prepubescent tastes in the high-life. My consumption had to match my imagination, and I frowned upon the trashy reputation of meals made possible through the clippings torn from newspapers. One did not live as if poor unless one was poor, and only dumb dirty dullards lived poorly. Affluence was not earned, it was generated by processors and we need not be ashamed to plug ourselves in and tinker with the possibilities. But there was my dad, his finger upon the switch, his large head hovering over me and declaring that he was sorry, but it must be done for the greater good. I had to be cut off from the expectation that I could get whatever I wanted.
There remains no doubt that this earliest struggle to respect my dad’s power and love even when his power was wielded at the expense of my frustrations, whether accidentally or intentionally, followed me through my youth and into my adulthood. When I am given something to work with I have high expectations of it, and of the giver also. When any design flaw interrupts my use of anything, be it a car or a piece of software, I am inclined to take it personally. The provider should know better than to cut me off.
Now I live as a father in my own home, in command of my own family. I float down the hall killing light with the flip of a switch, a stately lord pinching the candles left to burn in empty rooms. My wife turns on the porch light before going to bed, and before I go to bed I turn it back off. In the morning I unplug the nightlights. This is my inheritance, toggling my own power economy. Electricity is not the extent of my vision. I remind my wife to use the factory-woven bags to lug groceries in and, when she does not, save the plastic shopping bags to use as trash bags in the bathroom. For a month I went outside to urinate in the grass so as to save a single flush of fresh toilet water, which over a period of time amounted to at least a bucket’s worth. Somewhere, I tell myself, a child in Africa has potable water for another week, if that is actually how it works. If anything, I am saving three cents and learning to be grateful for the privilege of indoor plumbing.
If only I were as consistent as my mythic father was in my young, light-starved eyes. A gross inconsistency of my power economy is leaving my laptop perpetually open and plugged into the outlet all day. The machine cannot be removed from my life. Deep in the basement of my childhood it is still an iron lung that shrieks at me with mockery. The machine churns out new devices that enslave: Facebook, Twitter, blogging, podcasts, iTunes, the empty pages of a word document begging to be given the breath of life, their cursors blinking an effortless taunt. Where is the man in a quaint cottage surrounded by trees and slicing them into sheets one-at-a-time to dance upon with a simple typewriter? Where is his lamp to blow out early in the evening so he can wake at dawn to work in the sunlight? The sufficient man is tethered to his electric blanket, reading live news updates and laughing at philosophy memes. How am I successfully managing any resource, let alone time?
In the storehouse of writer stereotypes we see the typewriter and cigarette, the pen and the whiskey, the quill and the opium. Our neurotic drug is inseparable from our tools. To pull the plug on one is to pull the plug on the other. We might feel like someone has done this to us, that we wish it were as easy as grabbing an antique typewriter and a cabin in the woods, mystic and unfettered by networks. We might feel we are proving something to the parents who warned us about a career in composition, the arts, electronic symbol-making. The machine has become necessary, yet only when it seems to die does its necessity end, when I look up to a world that is still functioning without so small a thing, a world that needs our petty creations to fail as much as it needs them to run.
I practice the economy of screen time with my oldest son, Noah, a first-grader adept at Minecraft. By the time I finished high school, I’d resolved not to let my children play video games as much as I had growing up. But games are now social, educational, sophisticated, no longer mere repetitions small reflexes. But they’re still screens, are they not? When they power off, our children blink their eyes like being rudely stirred out of a nap. My wife and I imposing thirty-minute time limits on screens and deduct time as a punishment for disobedience. Even when the removal is planned and anticipated our son struggles to accept the change, his malleable mind fixated on the open-ended, constantly rewarding power of crafting a world of pixels on his terms. I compete for his attention against a set of programs whose primitive design is not that far from the games I once played. There is no faulty wiring in the grip of an absent-minded, well-meaning dad any more. There is only me, having taken up his mantle, master of my house walking to and fro and pinching the pennies, rerouting the rivers. Will my children ever grow resentful at my power economy?
It is likely my dad never knew that he was giving me the chance to discover more reaches of the unsearchable world around me when at the stroke of a finger he mistakenly put to sleep the machine that held me. Even in a father’s bumbling moments his committed economy of a household could teach a flustered child the futility of investing all our time and energy in fruitless ambitions. My world was too large for his plans, and he could not possibly understand my frustration. From the top of the stair he controlled the light, controlled the world as I knew it. Whether accidental or planned, his vast economy was always at work in ways I couldn’t have known, and yet so much of it for a time hinged on the flip of a single switch.
My dad’s apologies might have told me it was not part of the plan, that I should still love him because he was trying. I could have appreciated him even more if I ever could imagine that he killed the switches to awaken me from the vanities of endless toy time away from people. It was he who had the right to pound his fists in anger, and I who needed to say, “sorry, Dad, I didn’t hear you up there.” By both accident and design he was teaching me the greater economy of the soul and its referents, that we cannot be a people controlled by flipping switches and lighting screens. We cannot let our devices be masters of our wellness. This man knew about it before the internet, before social media and online play. The first visions I had of his failures were over the wiring in that outlet, but even the failures were teaching lessons in reliance I wasn’t ready to listen out for. He was teaching me that even God’s world isn’t wired the way we wish it was, and that the little box of a world we all craft unto ourselves is an illusion shattered as easily as the breaking of a circuit. He left me in darkness many a time, and I only had to climb the steps to a sun that never died out, a light whose nature even he could not explain, but knew would rise time and time again, the hand on the wheel behind it deciding who will live and who will die. All the while like a god keeping the world in motion—that masterful balancing act.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Peter Miller