MY FATHER CALLS. "Can you help me?" he says in an exasperated tone. "I'm trying to order a book for your mother on the computer."
"Of course," I say. "Where are you now?"
He's quiet for a moment. "Where am I?" he says. "I'm on the phone with you. I'm sitting here."
"No, I mean, where are you? On your computer."
"Oh," he says.
My mother picks up the phone."IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG?" she asks me.
"Please don't shout!" my father says.
"Your father said he could get this book for me," she says. "But he's been at this an hour now and, oh, I don't know, can you help him?"
"Of course," I say. It's interesting to note that she has not asked me to help her, seeing as this is, after all, a book she wants. My father is my mother's link to the Internet. Technology is not her . . . thing. I don't think my father likes being my mother's link to the Internet. This brave new world is, to him, still very new. He feels anything but brave.
My mother hangs up, and my father tells me the history of his problem. He managed to find www.amazon.com. He even found the book. "And I clicked on `order,' " he explains. "It said I needed to set up an account. I clicked on `okay.' It asked me for my name and address. I put that in. And then it asked for `company name.' I don't have a company name."
"Well, you just tab through that," I say.
"What's tab through?"
"Push the tab button on your keyboard. It will skip to the next box."
"Oh. See, they don't tell you that."
No, they don't. Keyboard control is, by now, intuitive to those of us who spend our days with computers. So intuitive that it's hard to conceive of its not being intuitive.
"Well, where are you now?" I ask him.
"Dad, on the computer," I say. My father is an intelligent man. One of those people who skipped a couple of grades. He sailed through medical school. Computer literacy has nothing to do with intelligence, and he is living proof.
"I know that's what you meant," he says. "But I don't know where I am. I pushed `help' and now the whole bookstore is gone."
"You must have pushed `help' on your browser," I say. "That's not the help you need."
"I'm supposed to know what kind of help I need? Doesn't that say something is wrong with the help -- not me?"
"I mean help is . . . help. Or it should be."
"It should," I say. Everything he's saying makes sense. Just sense in a different realm. It's strange to think how two people can speak the same language, but not the same language at all. It's strange to think how this great era of telecommunications, the future that promised to bring people closer together, has put a chasm between my father and me.
And he, at least, owns a computer. He knows how to turn the thing on. He's an entire world ahead of my mother. My mother and I couldn't even begin the conversation my father and I are attempting to have.
"Okay, Dad," I say, "here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go into amazon.com and I'm going to be you."
"You're going to be me?"
"Yeah, just give me your screen name and your password, and I'll be you, and I'll place the order."
"But -- "
"It's okay, Dad."
I can tell he feels as though I'm asking him to cheat. My father is a man of integrity. He plays by the rules. He is a person who places a high value on never misrepresenting oneself to anyone, anywhere. How do I explain to him that there is no anyone, no anywhere, not even a oneself in this new land he's tiptoeing through?
My mother picks up the phone. "JOHN," she yells, "WHY DON'T WE JUST GO TO THE BOOKSTORE? I mean, if this is so . . . difficult."
"It's not difficult!" he says. "Please hang up the phone." Then, to me: "Okay, you go in and be me." It's ego pressure, pure and simple.
I click this, click that. "I'm just writing in your address," I say, narrating my every move like a surgeon trying to reassure the patient. When the order is complete, I give him his confirmation number. He thanks me. He says he'll call me again if he gets stuck.
"Oh, but as long as I have you," he says. "Can you just tell me how I double-space when I write a letter?"
"Sure," I say. "What are you using?"
Pause. "What am I using? The computer."
And so I settle in for what is going to be a long conversation, thinking how nice it is to spend some time with my dad.
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.