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Electronic walkabout

Coming of age in the digital age.

My wife has been bugging me for a year to do something with our 14-year-old son Jon. He’s of an age, she said, when he needs some great initiation into manhood. He needs to learn from the old hunters what young hunters need to know.

I tried. We joined a church group, hoping to spark a fire. Nothing happened. I asked other men and their sons if they wanted to meet once a month. No enthusiasm there either. Nor much from Jon. “Why are you trying to force the issue?” he asked. “I’m going to be fine.”

Finally I asked him what he wanted. I had in mind something ritualistic, possibly involving drums and fire and cutting ourselves with knives. He shrugged and said what he mainly wanted was to hook his PC up to broadband.

I sat him down. I have actually networked our two computers three separate times in three distinct but half-baked ways over a 10-year period. But I haven’t shared my broadband with him. He’s been stuck on dial-up, and I was in no hurry to patch him in. Truth is, I was afraid of failing and losing face.

“I’m kind of really busy right now,” I told him.

“Get me the wire, I’ll do it myself,” he replied.

My heart sank. How could I say no? I foresaw another onerous install, with me buying the wrong stuff, or stuff that doesn’t work, me staying up late talking to product support, me finally hiring someone else to do the work. The prospect flashed HUMILIATION in yellow neon. Which I didn’t need my son to see.

But he said he wanted to try. So I sighed heavily and hauled out my plastic, and purchased the necessary cards, cables, and a network hub. “All I ask,” I said as I handed the mound of stuff over to him, “is that you don’t drag me into this. I have deadlines, I have grown-up pressures, I have a vein bulging like a blue racer on my forehead, and I might not be too patient with you.” Of course, I watched him from the corner of one red eye. First he installed the cards and snapped everything together. My PC connected but his didn’t. He sat and studied the problem for a day or two, then announced to no one in particular: “I’m moving my PC downstairs, so I’m going to need more cable.” I bought another 100 feet and slithered away.

I could hear him climbing a stepladder in my clothes closet and drilling a hole through the ceiling. No cosmetic damage, though, as the hole was in the crawlspace. That night I went to the closet for a robe and found my black Rio de Janeiro silk suit coated with a galaxy of white plaster-crumbs.

Also, I noticed a toilet plunger sitting among the shoe trees. I shrugged. I wanted no part of this.

After all this, the two PCs still weren’t connecting. Jon huddled with his friends. He flagged down passersby in product support chatrooms. He bused to a repair shop and listened to a half-hour’s discourse on how to troubleshoot a network installation.

“It’s all logic,” the man told him, tapping his temple. “You just have to keep following the steps.”

Jon dialed Microsoft’s $30 help line, and listened anxiously as a man who spoke halting English read bullet points from a printout. When he called back to get a different service rep, he found himself connected to the same guy.

When that didn’t work, he lugged his PC to the neighborhood tech shaman, the One Who Paces in His Garage, who took one look and told him the network cards were in conflict.

Jon trundled the box home. He replaced the conflicting card. He connected the cables. Lights blinked. He was on.

“Son of a gun,” I said, “it’s working.”

He had done it all. Tried. Failed. Got frustrated. Redrew the map. Reached out to third parties for information. When the information failed, he kept looking, turning over every stone. Followed the steps. Succeeded. Did it all without me.

It didn’t matter, for the moment, that his next move was to hurl himself even deeper in the stalking game he has been playing online for the past year. He once told me, “Don’t worry about it, Dad. I’m just doing this to survive high school.”

I was impressed. Jon smiled, faintly.

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