Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The family that Skypes together

    Almost 30 years ago I came to appreciate an adage about friends that guides me still: Distance can't sever that which "want-to" holds intact. 

    Back then, a childhood pal had followed his muse to Japan, making it his home. The end of our friendship? Hardly.

   Just as we had done when he was on a bomb-sweeper in the waters off Vietnam, we kept in contact by letter and other means. In the intervening years since he left for Japan, I can count our actual face-time opportunities on one hand. Yet, though on opposite hemispheres, we've remained close.

    Times have changed. So have ways we interface. Recently he e-mailed a video clip of him speaking at the United Nations 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan.

     Since the days when written communication was carried in saddle bags, our society has galloped at quantum leaps. Remember when faxes were our means of immediacy? Such a long time ago.

     The other night, my family demonstrated how far one can travel without actually going anywhere. We played a board game with one of the players in a separate time zone.

     This summer our son Michael, a grad student at the University of Texas, introduced us to the game Settlers of Catan. Popular among Gen-Xers, it's like Monopoly in bare feet, and with no jail.

     My wife, son Rob and I kept playing it after Michael went back to Austin, missing him all the while. The other night we changed that. We rigged up the means to include him in our next game, via Internet.

    For her birthday I'd given Becky the means to Skype — video conferencing — on her laptop. Game on.

    Shades of images from the International Space Station: There was Michael Saturday night, in head phones in a favorite coffee house, staring at a game board on our kitchen table 968 miles away.

    The matter of distance overcome, other problems didn't seem so insurmountable, like my wife's urge to hand the dice to the laptop screen showing Michael's face.

     At one point Michael had to visit the restroom, leaving his laptop unattended with the ignition on, so to speak. We imagined some bearded interloper taking control and demanding a spin of the dice. Didn't happen.

     At one point, white-and-black feline Oreo interrupted the transmission to make love to the camera.

     At one point Michael complained about a loud drone affecting his hearing. Sorry. Microwaving popcorn.

     At one point he sneezed. We pondered the extent to which computers are susceptible to rhinoviruses.

     At one point in the game we had a dispute, and had to perform rock-paper-scissors arbitration. The slight lag as the interfacing images rocketed around the globe made that problematic.

      Overall, however, it was a flawless run. The only problem: Michael won. That means I lost. Again. But I had popcorn, and he didn't.

       Oh, if my mom could have seen this. Gone for a quarter century now, I always think of her in modern terms, because she was always up for change. She'd be all over the Internet today, forwarding e-mails, surfing for recipes, posting photos on Facebook. We'd be teleconferencing every Sunday. Mom, we missed you at the dinner table Saturday night.

       Sometime before signing off — we'll play again soon — Michael joked, "They invented the Internet because it had military value. Now, this is what it's come to." Yeah, facilitating a family board game.

        I don't know. As pertains to our collective needs, I can think of no function more vital.

        Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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