I enter a new Web of negotiations

Everyone, even my mom, told me that I would have to enter cyberspace eventually. I would chuckle and reply that I was perfectly happy in the cow-, horse-, and hay-scented spaces of the farm that sustained me, body and soul. I preferred handwritten – even word-processed – letters flown and trucked, mailbox to mailbox, in real envelopes to the instantaneous send/reply of e-mail.

i also enjoy phone chats, so why in the world did I need e-mail, or worse, the Internet? My teenage son, who surfs the Net as easily as I pitch hay, rolls his eyes at my penchant for off-line space and slow time. Clicking his mouse expertly at his home console, he is for connecting to the world – now.

Then I retired from commercial dairying, and the milk checks stopped coming. An organization in Washington, D.C., for which I had once done some editing contacted me about renewing our contract. There was only one catch: I had to have e-mail capability and know-how. They provided capability in the form of a personal computer. I still needed that know-how, and I knew just where to turn.

My son and I wrangle over our interactive needs. Some, like allowance and chores, are given. I still do the bulk of the cooking and laundry; he applies his considerable muscle to things I can't heft. This leaves a large realm of negotiable terrain, which now includes the uneven territory of cyberspace. He is a guide extraordinaire, often in need of extra money or transport. I am the flatfooted novice with a new source of income and a car.

We both recognized the possibilities.

I was happy to pay a modest fee for his initial help hooking up my system and connecting me to his server. He bided his time, charging nothing as he ushered me through a series of e-mail and Internet procedures, untangling the multiwindowed knots I created on-screen. He tamed the erratic leaps of my mouse with a large, steadying hand. (How long, I wondered, had it been since I'd guided his smaller hand at anything?) I marveled at my son's expertise and was willing to reward it, as he clearly appreciated.

"Tim, can you show me how to attach a document to an e-mail?" He weighed this request from the living room sofa.

"Sure. Can we go to Circuit City later? I want to check out a new game."

"OK."

"I'll drive, right?" My son has his learner's permit, but his actual driving time is one of those things we negotiate, often heatedly.

"OK." I'd hardly hesitated.

I now know how to wing documents cross-country with a few clicks of that mouse, which finally has begun to move the cursor where I want it to go. I'm getting better at a lot of things on my PC, but my apprenticeship is far from over. Hardly a day goes by that I don't tap Tim's knowledge and easy grasp of the bewildering new world I've entered. For the most part, he responds with a generous flow of help and advice.

Sometimes, though, he takes it too fast, sweeping the mouse hither and yon, clicking expertly through some formatting procedure without a backward glance at my increasingly vacant, clueless expression. It makes me wonder how often I'd done that same kind of thing in his younger years, deftly solving some childhood conundrum before he could absorb Step One. It's efficient, but it's no way to teach – or learn.

Having the tables turned like this, as Tim tutors me, has been thought-provoking. It's a little like having a preview of that coming stretch of time when our relationship no longer simply spans the space between adolescence and adulthood. There may come to be geographical distance between us, but I suspect we'll gain a new kind of closeness, evoked by the equality of full independence – or of more balanced dependencies, at least.

We're not there quite yet, and we're still negotiating in a number of areas, though on an increasingly sophisticated level.

Last evening, we'd just sat down to a favorite TV show when Tim asked for a snack from the kitchen. I suggested he wait on himself, and we were off.

"Mom, I'm so comfortable right now, my feet are rooted to the floor."

"Well, mine grew right through the floor, into the ground." He grinned, ready to play.

"Mine are feeling a little overheated at the earth's core."

"Mine are starting to speak Chinese."

"And mine," he said with a triumphant flourish, "are fully fluent!"

He'd won that round, I admitted, but he still had to wait on himself. Maybe after he shows me how to customize my toolbar....

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