Sep 30 2014

Why Live Here

When it rains in Barcelona, it rains decisively. The morning might start out sunny, but by midday the dark clouds have slipped over the crest of the mountain, wrapping their gray billowy arms around the church perched at Tibadabo and crawling down toward the sea, dropping their contents with deliberate force. The rain might start out as a prolonged sprinkle, dotting your shoulders as you wait for the bus – and you hope it’ll hold off until you make itgray_and_sun home – but when the sky opens up, the rain teems down. Rain pounds the balconies and pelts against the big glass windows in our living room. Rain falls strong and fierce. The sky pours its soul out on the city, filling the streets with angry, wet weather.

The next day, usually, the sky is clear and sunny. Rain rarely lasts for consecutive days, like in my beloved Paris where the cloudy ceiling lingers for weeks at a time, dampening your mood and your shoes with its prolonged presence. Barcelona’s rain comes down hard and then it stops and there’s sun. That’s a good reason to live here.

~ ~ ~

The Internet-connecting technician designated to come flip a switch somewhere in our building – and that’s all he has to do since I’ve already hooked up the router to the phone and to our computer and our little home network is four-bars strong but for the fact the bars connect to nothing – was supposed to come two weeks ago. There were subsequent promises from our new provider, about an arrival between 8 am and 2 pm on one day, or 4 pm and 8 pm another, jailing us in our home for fear of missing the arrival of this man with a tool belt and a magic stroke that will connect us miraculously to the rest of the world. Each appointment has evaporated into a non-event. When I called to inquire why nobody arrived, the customer service agents seemed as confused as we were.

This weekend I went back to the store, a brave endeavor given the Saturday morning press in such a place. I lined up with the regular working chaps who can’t, like me, peek in on a less crowded Tuesday morning to buy a phone or organize their Internet. After waiting for the couple ahead of me to decide which plan to take, and to painstakingly select their new phones, it was my turn. After recounting the debacle of our hook-up, I learned the real reason for our delay: there is a problem in our sector, all the installations in our neighborhood are delayed. I was shown a long list of other new clients, wireless neighbors of mine, waiting for service to commence. yellow_circuit_boxes Apparently all the competitive service providers are still obliged to rely on Telefonica, Spain’s old state phone company, for this last technical step in the installation. And apparently, our wait for hook-up has been extended until October 20th. That would be four weeks away. Nearly two months from the start date of our contract.

For De-facto, when it rains it pours. Not only was he trapped in the house for nearly two full days last week, waiting for the mystery technicians who never showed – we’re guessing they were never going to come, it was just a ruse to get us off the phone – but his computer conked out on him, too. First the flashing screen and the hard drive grinding to a quiet, definitive halt. It’s under Applecare so will be repaired, but it’ll take two weeks – forcing him to use one of the two old machines we have on hand. Both of these computers worked dutifully for many years, but as it happens with old Macs, the rainbow colored wheel-of-doom starts to spin, programs take forever to open and web-pages load at snail speed.

De-facto doesn’t get on well with electronics to begin with. I’m the one who hooks things up and regularly goes through his laptop arranging bookmarks and filing systems and urging him to upgrade and back-up. He takes pride in being a luddite, and gave up his decade-old Ericsson regular feature phone only because it ceased to function. Part of our new Internet package includes a smart phone for him – at least that’s working – so he shouldn’t be adrift, except, well, he hasn’t quite mastered his new Android phone. This would explain the cursing and occasional pounding of the desk radiating from the office next to mine.

~ ~ ~

Soon we’ll all have telephones. Short-pants already does. When she started walking to school on her own two years ago, it seemed the right thing to do. I was afraid she’d fall into the head-down-at-her-phone crowd, but she hasn’t caught the texting bug. Occasionally I’ll get a flurry of “I love you more” texts from her, but her correspondence with friends is very limited, I think she doesn’t even know their phone numbers. I almost never see her at_the_phonewith her phone out. The phone is her tool, not the other way around.

I, too, will have a new phone. It’s on order, and when it comes in – next week I’m told – the not-so-smart phone I’ve been using for the last year will be handed down to Buddy-roo. She’s champing at the bit, eager to have what her sister has, ready to stay in closer touch with her friends. It’ll help her coordinate the after-school meet-up-to-walk-home rendezvous with her sister, and we’ll be able to reach both of them with important messages. They can’t use the phones in school, but surely she’ll be flipping them open as soon as they walk out of the gate.

If our new Internet hook-up ever becomes a reality, then our home be humming at full connectivity. At present you can only get a signal in one corner of the apartment, fortunately that’s where De-facto and I have our offices. The girls bedrooms have been wi-fi free zones, which meant they had to be under our noses when they went on line. That’s about to change (one hopes). Computers and telephones and iPads will connect in every room on both floors of our apartment, which will make our work much easier, but probably not without an impact on our family life. At dinner last night we talked about drawing up a contract covering use of electronic devices, modeled after this one (an excellent example of parenting) that made the rounds two years ago. We started a list of all the things that might be included in our agreement: no electronic devices at the table during meal times, no texting while walking, no screen time until homework is done, surfing and viewing on age-appropriate sites.

The latter is a tricky one. It’s easy to suggest that they avoid content with a lot of violence; I’ve seen Buddy-roo click away from something because she knew it would be disturbing. But how to get them to avoid the sexy stuff? The minute you mention not to look at it, they’ll want to. I have a friend who catches her daughter watching porn on the iPad, and forbidding it doesn’t seem to help. I gave it my best shot anyway, in a command I meant to be clear but it was probably a meandering way of saying “don’t watch people having sex.” Apparently De-facto, Short-pants and I were all facing Buddy-roo during this part of the conversation.

“Why’s everyone looking at me?” she said.

~ ~ ~

This morning, rain, again. A steady percussion on the little balcony outside my office. De-facto fidgets in the next room, restless in his (truly) wire-less condition. In better weather, he’d hop on his bike and troll up the mountain, or go for a run. If I had my druthers, I’d prop my pillows against the headboard and climb under the covers with the laptop and work from bed. It’s that kind of day.

Alas, there is no wifi in the bedroom, and anyway, I have a conference call on Skype which requires a stronger, more reliable connection than the one we borrow from our neighbors. I have no choice but to trek out in the sloppy weather to a umbrella_dayshared office where I’ll have desk space, creative camaraderie and resilient wifi. But on a wet day like today it’d be my preference to stay home and dry.

On the way there, I’ll go by the phone store to buy some more credit for my temporary phone. I’ll nudge them again about the technician and our Internet hook-up, just to give me the satisfaction of at least trying to do something to move things along. It’s unlikely to help, we’ll probably have to slog along with our make-shift connection for a few more weeks. But at least tomorrow the rain will stop, and the sun will shine. I keep reminding myself, that’s why I live here.


Sep 21 2014

Not Quite at Home

I took some ribbing from De-facto about my trip to Paris. I’d tried to tie it in to some business travel coming up next week – often if connecting flights are required, I’ll arrange for a change in Paris and take an extra night to run into town, check in with friends, get the mail at our old apartment and attend to my hair – but next week flying via Paris made no sense in terms of timing or cost. It’d been two months since a haircut. My hair has its own personality and works at several lengths as it grows, until it gets too long and heavy and sloppy-headed. I combed the travel sites for a reasonable fare, and just when I was about to give up and go to a local salon, I got an email from a discount airline offering 35-euro flights. I found one that would whisk me into Paris one morning and return me, well-coiffed, to Barcelona the next.

Walking through the Orly airport I felt buoyant. The spring in my step, the kind you get when you are someplace you’re glad to be. The sounds of the airport, the look and language of the people, it was all comfortably familiar. paris_rooftopsEven when my French bank card was rejected at the train ticket machine, I didn’t panic. I went to the window and tried it again with a human helper. The card was damaged, he said, probably the chip. I had enough cash to get a ticket into the city and enough time before my appointment to stop at my bank branch and order a replacement card and withdraw some money the old fashioned way, from a teller.

This transaction was effortless. I know how to navigate in French without thinking too hard. I know what metro stop to take to get where I want to go without studying the map, or the app. I can count on my bank to be open during what I consider normal business hours. How many times in Spain, have I tried to attend to errands only to be confronted with a dark office, a locked door or a closed gate because its during the hours of the afternoon siesta? What a relief that I could simply solve this surprise problem with a quick detour to my bank and I could make myself understood instantly. France actually seemed easy.

Can you believe that? Navigating the hidden code of its bureaucracy, enrolling the girls in school and at the conservatory, sorting out cartes de sejour and the tax foncier – not that many years ago I labored to figure out the complexities of the French system. Compared to Spain, France is efficient. Things get put off and re-directed, but there’s not as much mañana. Maybe it’s just more familiar after nearly two decades there. Surely if I remain in Spain, or Catalonia – my Spanish friends remind me that Barcelona isn’t really Spain – this comfort will develop. Funny how it takes not quite feeling at home in a country to realize that I felt quite at home in a country and didn’t realize how much I felt at home in.

~ ~ ~

Our cross-country trek put me in the United States for the longest stretch of consecutive days since I moved abroad. We spanned the nation, taking in its west coast cool, mid-western earnestness and east coast hustle. I understood every word of every conversation I had with every store clerk, waitress or stranger in the street. I spoke English non-stop, except for the odd French or Spanish exchange with Short-pants, who has a knack for languages and enjoys exercising her linguistic muscle.

Yet despite the ease of communication, I didn’t really feel at home. So many things about my own country feel foreign to me. I moved away from the United States 22 years ago, just as Bill Clinton took office for his first term. It was a different America that I left. Pre-9/11, you only waved the flag on the 4th of July. The middle class wasn’t an endangered species. People didn’t white_black_Obama_flagneed to debate Genesis vs. Darwin, one was a belief, the other, a fact. Religion meant helping your community rather than damning another. Elected representatives compromised to forge solutions instead of waging a war against the opposing party no matter what its objective. I’m not saying the United States was perfect in the ‘80s. Women and minorities have a much better place in American society now than they did then (there’s still a lot of room for improvement) and I’m proud that we elected a black president for two terms. But it’s a very different country than the one I left, and it doesn’t always feel familiar to me.

By the time we crossed the border to Canada and made our way to the airport, I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain. It did feel good to turn the key in the door of our Barcelona apartment. My first walk around the neighborhood, to my local haunts, gave me a feeling of returning to something home-like. I even have a Spanish ID number now, which means I am able to obtain our very own ADSL internet connection, something we survived a year without, thanks to generous neighbors who shared their network with us. (Not even a pre-pay option exists for internet in Spain.) I ordered our Internet service twenty days ago and though the router arrived via post, we are still waiting for the technician to come and to flip some switch to make it operable.

I have been back to the store twice to inquire. During the most recent trip I figured I’d stop and make a deposit on the way, but at 4:00 pm the bank was still closed for its lunchtime siesta. You can’t imagine how many times I turn up at the tailor, the eyeglass shop, the you-name-it store, thinking it’s way past lunch, they have to be open by now, only to find out that they don’t open again until 5:00. Granted they stay open until 8:30 or 9:00 pm. But by then I’m already having cocktails, not running errands. Clearly I’m not yet accustomed to the Spanish clock. I’m still not quite at home here.

If you ask the girls where home is, you’ll get different answers. For Buddy-roo, Paris is her true home and awaits our return. Short-pants loves living in Barcelona, and optimistically remarks that France and the United States feel like home, too. I’ve written before about feeling in between two cultures. you_are_here Now it seems I’m dancing among three cultures at once, carrying an American passport, a French Carte de Resident or a Spanish Permiso de Residencia, appreciating each one but never quite feeling at home in any of them.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the laid-back attitude in Barcelona, especially during a long, late lunch or heading to the beach to go Stand-up Paddleboarding. But if you are trying to get something done, well, just expect a few hiccups. On Friday I was promised the Internet technician would come between 8 am and 2 pm, but he never showed up. When I phoned the service provider to ask about it, there was no record of my appointment, and no way to tell me when I might be given another. So this posting comes to you courtesy of our neighbor’s connection. Maybe in this modern world, home is where the wifi is. Once I get it, I’ll let you know.


Feb 16 2011

Digital Rasa

I once worked in a cubicle a stone’s throw from a meticulous woman. I’d listen to her set up appointments with clients in the most deliberate way, confirming the time and place, clarifying the purpose of the meeting. Her desk was ordered, her language precise, and she lived by her day-timer.

One year she tried a new calendar method: after completing each task or meeting on her to-do list, she’d erase it with white-out. I could picture her pulling the little brush out of the green plastic bottle and carefully blanking out every accomplished item. Her objective: a fully white page at the end of each day.

The problem, she confessed after doing this for an entire year, was that she had no reference about what she’d actually done. If you asked – a week or a month later – when she’d met with someone or competed something, she couldn’t tell you. She enjoyed the daily satisfaction of a clean agenda, but no institutional memory to assist anyone else.

~ ~ ~

I’ve been following an on-line conversation by Gwen Bell, an internet-mentor of sorts, one of the trio behind the whole Reverb deal. I say of sorts because I have only exchanged a few tweets with her, but even from a distance she inspires or provokes. She’s exploring how to be more intimate and authentic in her web-conduct, and as a result re-ordering her on-line priorities. In a recent subscribe-only missive she foreshadowed a digital incineration, and she’s followed through. She deleted her on-line artifacts – yesterday – starting afresh with a digital tabula-rasa. She wonders what would happen if everyone she knew did the same thing.

Given that last week I wrote about my reticence to delete my mother’s email electronic information from my computer, I’m an unlikely candidate for such a digital purge. I have dozens of boxes stored with eclectic mementos in various basements of my life and it would carry forward that the things I cherish about my on-line life – one I consider rich and nourishing – are things I want to bookmark and access with only a few clicks.

I wonder, when Short-pants and Buddy-roo are older, will they appreciate the memories assembled in this epistle, or they will be insulted, angry that their privacy has been compromised? I used to roll my eyes in embarrassment at my mother’s Christmas letter. Even though never more than a line or two was devoted to me – and her friends purported to love having the news – it was always painful to read what she had written about me. The girls could revolt with a digital mutiny; by then they’ll probably have hacked my password and could easily incinerate the stories of their youth without my permission.

There are a hundred questions I’d ask my mother, if I could. And I did, but there was much she couldn’t remember. If she’d only written it down. To have a digital archive of her feelings during my childhood would be so precious to me now. When my daughters are mothers to their own children, could it be that my archives might at least amuse them, if not offer them comfort?

~ ~ ~

In college I accumulated (just barely) enough credits to have a degree in History and in Semiotics. So the historian in me thinks it’s blasphemous to delete a rich history of published content from the web. Archives are the record of a narrative. Like the diaries of Anais Nin, an on-line journal is biased, slightly (or mightily) filtered for public consumption and maybe it tells only the part of the story, but it’s still part of the important collective herstory. There’s a feminist aspect as well: the platform of blogging has enabled more women to publish without a gatekeeper; it’s hard to imagine deleting the words that have resulted from this privilege.

The historian in me also believes that some things ought never to be deleted from our consciousness. Like the Holocaust, for instance. That’s an extreme case, compared to the archives of one person’s website, but where do you draw the line? When you delete something, what are you saying? That it’s not important enough to be remembered in its original form? If it were published as a book, it would just go out of print. But there’d be a dusty copy somewhere, a future internet scholar could dig it up as a reference for a treatise on the evolution of social media. Can a closed archive, filed away in the cloud, be accessed by the next generation of historians and sleuths?

The semiotician in me, however, wants to deconstruct the discourse of this electronic medium and my attachment to my texts, starting with the word “I” which is repeated oft and means one thing to me, and an entirely different thing to a reader. “I” also means one thing now, in this current reality, and it signifies something else later, in the future, when what is now is the past.

Or does it? There are stories of an unforgiving Internet. A Google search can undermine a burgeoning career. Names like Krystal Ball and Mary Bono Mack come to mind. This New York Times article last summer got me thinking about how digital archives signal the end of forgetting:

In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites…the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

Well yes. We ought to be given room to be young and foolish, to make mistakes and to grow into our opinions. I can think of a dozen things I said or did in college and just after (and into my thirties for that matter) that I’d rather not have to answer to now. Not because they were so horrible, but because they demonstrate questionable judgment, or the inexperience of youth. And yet, those episodes of lesser judgment were critical learning opportunities that informed the (usually) wiser me that exists now.

How can we evolve into who we are in the process of becoming if the current vehicle that records data is so very precise that it leaves nothing to the frail and vague human memory that edits selectively and makes most of our stories more interesting?

~ ~ ~

I like my current blogging practice, and I feel no compulsion to follow suit and delete any archives. But I’m interested in the conversation that Gwen and her circle are carrying on about what’s emerging as a more authentic way of telling our stories on the web. It has to do with publishing, it has to do with connecting, it has to do with being present with (or despite) technology. They’re challenging assumptions and renaming what is new media for many but already old media to them. And the internet, which has woven its way inside us, should be challenged as we grow to rely on it more and more.

For now, the body of work that is represented in this blog – which started out as a comment on my lack of institutional memory, the losing of your mind that happens after birthing children – is an important narrative for me to keep, and to keep public. But I have a new awareness: someday I might want to put forward a different part of me, or my daughters might ask to take control of their childhood stories. Then it might seem like the right thing, to take the plunge with my own digital bottle of white out. Would I be erasing history, or taking the reigns of what is to be remembered? Or would that be letting go the reigns?