We find technological common ground

I'm not a technophobe; I just don't want or need the kind of digital gadgetry that my son blatantly covets. Tim would give his eyeteeth for a personal pager, cellphone, and laptop, not to mention a multitrack CD player for our pickup. He doesn't have that many eyeteeth, or the funds for such purchases, but that doesn't dampen his ardor.

"Mom!" his voice infuses hope and authority into the syllable. He waves an ad sheet from the sofa and alerts me to a deal that I surely cannot afford to ignore.

"We'll never get it for that price again!" he pleads.

"But I don't even want it."

"I do."

"Then save up."

It is an old conversation, repeated so often that our minds needn't even engage in the wording. He goes back to his beloved ads or to his music, I return to my book or letter. This little exercise is our way of paying tribute to our differences.

It took a school project to bring our common ground into focus - ironically, an assignment focusing on the Civil War. Tim was to adopt a persona and develop a 1,500-word paper on his way of life as a farmer or townsman, soldier or civilian of the 1860s. The parameters were wide open, but historical accuracy was a must.

Mr. Combs has taught long enough to know that 14-year-olds are not all equally gifted in purely verbal expression. In lieu of words, an equivalent effort and message in other media would be acceptable.

"I'm going to do a video," Tim declared, fully aware, of course, that we lacked the requisite technology. Instead of dismissing the idea, admittedly my first impulse, I thought of the setting he surely had in mind - the rich visual texture of our farm. We had the rolling hills, log sugaring cabin, cows, draft horses, and low-tech tools of a Civil War-era farmstead. This was a doable, even enticing idea.

All that we needed was the video camera. Instead of buying one (which would cost us our summer vacation), we borrowed one from a trusting friend who hadn't used hers in years.

A few days before we were to film the action - the story of a Yankee soldier returning to his farm on leave - I had the good sense to test the camera out in the pasture. Our cows struck irresistible poses in the long spring grass, but the camera would not respond to the "record" button. I eyed its large black battery pack, and drove into town to have it tested.

Sure enough, it was the battery, which no longer even took a recharge. I was shocked to learn that a replacement cost $70. But by now, I was invested in Tim's concept. I placed the order and paid for its special delivery. For the moment, I was the consumer of Tim's dreams.

The battery arrived two days before our scheduled Saturday shooting. Tim had recruited his friend Cisa to play farm wife, and that was the afternoon she was free to help. On Thursday, with the new battery in place, I approached the cows again, camera poised on my shoulder, for a test run. This time, the tape rolled. As I viewed through the eyepiece the beloved animals I was recording, I realized what a rare opportunity I had to create a visual record of my own life as a dairy farmer.

I spent much of the afternoon documenting every aspect of the farm: the fields, streams, and woods, goat, chickens, cows, and horses. I gained steadiness and competence with practice, and soon realized that I was enamored of filmmaking.

As I brought in the cows for morning milking on Friday, camera on my shoulder, I gave a mental nod to Tim's techno-passions. I was admittedly having a blast. And the resulting tape is a treasure, at least to me.

On Friday night, Tim and I began recording for his social-studies project. He both orchestrated and directed the shots, telling me where to stand and how to angle the camera. Filming began with his walk in period clothes up along the wooded stream to the cabin hill. Carrying tin pan and cup and a leather haversack, he looked for all the world, and despite his youth, like a weary veteran of 19th-century battle. We filmed the sunset, dinner cooking over the hearth fire, and the interior of the cabin, stripped of all modern accouterments and faintly illuminated by oil lamps.

Tim slipped on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses to write a letter with a quill pen at the handcrafted table. Even through the eyepiece, I could tell he was enjoying this quiet respite from the 21st century, however much he embraces all that it offers. We each bedded down in the deep peace of the little cabin, completely untethered to the outside world, to sleep long and deeply.

The next day, after milking (the electric-vacuum pump precluded this as a sequence in the film), Cisa arrived, and she and Tim acted out a typical day's farm chores, from hand-cultivating the garden to washing linens in the stream. Cisa picked garden lettuce, gathered eggs in her apron, and even tried her hand at hand-milking a cow in the pasture. We got just enough footage to capture the moment before Rosie kicked the pail and quit the scene like a disgruntled starlet. As we pros say, the scene was, despite its brevity, a wrap.

The taping concludes as Tim's war leave ends and he walks back up the stream from whence he'd come, after bidding Cisa farewell.

If you know what to look and listen for, you can catch the glitches. In the gardening scene, our ancient hand cultivator regularly loses small parts as Tim turns up and down rows. As he wields a variety of old hand tools on a carpentry project outside the cabin, he hammers his thumb and gallantly all but covers up the pain until the camera stops. As he leaves to return to his regiment, head hung in sorrow, he unexpectedly encounters a low-hanging branch. Cisa's scream comes across loud and clear as she slips (off-camera) down the slick streambank after Tim vanishes from sight. Magically, it sounds like a wail of grief at their parting.

The entire project was a smashing success, not only in terms of the final grade, but also from the standpoint of what we each brought away from it. It took a night in the cabin to freshly remind Tim of how sweet a low-tech world can be. And it took a new technology to create a visual memory of that night, and of the farm itself, for me. Not bad for an eighth-grade project.

I gave a mental nod to my son's techno-passions. I was having a blast.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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