Good Life

For putting parents at ease, a call can go the distance

My dad was surprised to hear from me.“Russ!” he said. “Where are you?”“Rome,” I said. “Happy birthday.” “Rome? You sound like you’re right around the corner.”This was 30 years ago. Long-distance calls were rare and wondrous things. It made sense that if you were trying to converse with someone who was very far away your voice would sound all tinny and crackly and you would have to shout.And the purpose of such calls, heaven knows, was not to chat or be a human Global Positioning System (“I’m walking past the Colosseum now”) but simply to hear a loved one’s voice and be reassured that he’s OK. The weekly check-ins from college, for example, were limited to three questions: Was I feeling all right? Was school going OK? Did I need any money? The answers my dad wanted, of course, were yes, yes and no, so those were the answers I invariably gave. (I thought it unwise to tell him I was blowing all my money on long-distance calls to my girlfriend.)My mom was a bit chattier — OK, a lot chattier — which would prompt my dad to say, “This is costing a fortune,” and hustle us off the line.It wasn’t that my father was a cold man — far from it. He just hated giving all his hard-earned dough to the phone company and the electric company. (When we left lights on in empty rooms, he’d ask if we owned stock in Con Edison.)Only an emergency would warrant a trans-Atlantic jingle. I knew I was doing something wildly extravagant when I twirled that rotary dial to wish my pop a happy 60th. It might have been my only call home in five months abroad. (I wrote a lot of postcards.)Now I’m the one who’s pushing 60 (and my dad, 90) and my daughter’s the one who’s enjoying a few months of expatriation. Before she left, she urged me to open an Internet phone account so we could talk for free on our computers. I responded technophobically and absent-mindedly. It took me a month to set up the account and another month to tell her I’d set up the account.Finally, I wanted to hear her voice. We made a date: Tuesday.Tuesday, I heard an unfamiliar summons from my computer: My “phone” was “ringing”: Athens calling. After staring dumbly at the screen for a while, I figured out that I had to click on the little telephone icon. Feeling like The Man Who Mistook His Daughter for a Laptop, I asked, “Sylvie? Are you there?”She wasn’t. I figured it was me: I was doing something wrong, or I was speaking into an imaginary microphone. Then messages began to appear: Papi?11/6/07 9:43 AM are you there?11/6/07 9:45 AM DAD11/6/07 9:45 AM come back to me11/6/07 10:29 AM my mic is being weird11/6/07 10:29 AM i can’t hear anythingFrantically, I tried to respond. It took forever to figure out where to type and even longer to figure out how to send. Finally my words joined hers on the screen:Russell Frank 11/6/07 10:50 AMI heard you.Sylvie Frank 11/6/07 10:50 AMhiThen she called again. This time, it worked (the problem had been at her end).Loudly, I asked her the three questions. In a normal voice, she recited the three correct answers: yes, yes and no.“You sound like you’re right around the corner,” I said. Then we chatted for half an hour. Later, I told my dad about it. Nothing surprises him anymore.Embarrassingly, Russell Frank teaches in the College of Communications. You may quaintly send him an e-mail at rfrank@psu.edu. He tries to contribute frequent blogs to www. centredaily.com. He doesn’t always succeed.

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