Saturday, May 22, 2010

Online odyssey

WHAT takes the place of postcards in the age of emails?

I once stepped inside a classroom that created, for United Nations Day, a mural of postcards from all over the world. It made a pretty quilt.

Since the postcards were pasted against a “sinamay” background, the loose weaving of the fiber made it possible to read some of the notes written by the postcard senders.

“Here in Walawala. Wish you were here.” The messages I browsed rarely varied from this version but then, postcards are shrinking, insipid cousins of letters.

Still, there is no letter that is not enhanced by the enclosure of a few photographs, with the stories behind them.

When my older son left home again this summer, I was confident that, with digital technology and online chatting, the days would quickly pass and I would be back again at my full-time job of living with a teenager.

This son was only in his sixth grade when he asked if he could join other students on a study-tour in Xiamen, China. After telling my son I would think about it, I took a deep breath and thought and read up and consulted and thought some more before giving him my consent to travel, some three years after he first asked.

The summer my son studied in Xiamen was also the summer I learned to chat. Other things I indirectly found out about were China’s firewalls (no Facebook, no YouTube, a censored Google), limited access to the Internet and webcams (only one Internet cafĂ©, with no webcams, serving the university where he studied), and curfews (I typed a too long response, curfew was enforced and my son went offline).

This summer, with some 3,000 nautical miles between us again, I’ve graduated to navigating around Google maps.

In our chats, my son mentioned that he went for a walk around the neighborhood without my sister or her family for company. After I violate the rules of chat and send questions of novel-length, he directed me to I joined him on a virtual walk from Walder Road to Judd Avenue and then to Norman Avenue and back home.

That first virtual journey was refreshing. It took some time to get back to my sister’s virtual home in that digital neighborhood, about an hour longer than the real walk my son took.

Still, for someone who stumbles on her chat history only by clicking maniacally around her Gmail homepage (and that’s on my good days), I’m learning by fits and starts.

At a certain age, children shoot up so fast, their nest-bound parents get light-headed just looking up at them and, with difficulty, telling them apart from the celestial bodies and UFOs.

As with stargazers, parents learn to put together a constellation of meaning from flickering pinpoints that may or may not be messages homing in.

Among the photos he emailed is one that shows him holding a snake. As soon as he went online, I got all chatty: Is that snake drugged? Is it defanged? Is it real? Is that you holding the snake? Where is my sister?

As with the other instances, my son took me step-by-step in decoding the time counter in photos: See? That’s me feeding the joey. That shot was taken nearly an hour after I posed with the snake. What’s imminent danger?

Because I recycle postcards as bookmarks and markers, I sometimes ponder at the disjointed messages left in the cards I’ve cut up and left in books I reread.

Those postcard bits are almost as cryptic as a teenager’s chat, or as clear. Our mobile call caught him while he was sheltering at the Opera House during a downpour. Where are you going next? Chinatown. What are you going to do there? Looking for new hopia flavors for Dad.

I took so long to respond, he buzzed to check if I’m still there. Ma? Wait, ‘Ta, I’m downloading Google maps.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s May 23, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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