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  • katherine halligan

Oh, What a Tangled Web

This morning I dropped off my children at school — at actual, real, physical school — and so I am now sitting at my desk (MY desk! MINE!), for the second time since the eleventh of March. That’s approximately six months and 17 days since I last sat here (not that I’m counting) and was truly productive in any meaningful way.

Let’s be very clear: I am not now being productive in any meaningful way. I am sitting here, writing this post. But I am not delving into the piles of desk work and filing that have been ignored for eons. I am not dealing with the screamingly urgent life-min that lurks in my inbox. I am not doing anything remotely constructive in a professional capacity. But I am here, and that feels exceedingly good.

The first time I had sat at this desk since March 11 was last week. My husband finally cracked and went out for an actual coffee meeting with actual humans, before walking through an actual door and into an actual building, to sit at an actual desk. I was delighted because it was not my desk where he was sitting, and he was delighted because he was OUT. In the real world.

But that moment of happiness at being reunited with the workspace I had so painstakingly carved out for myself — only to have to relinquish it to my husband at a moment’s notice on March 12 (he brings home the bacon, after all, so it was fair enough) — was brief. For approximately six minutes after I sat down, I was required to leap back up again to help my seven-year-old log back into her Google classroom and then again every three to nine minutes thereafter to help her rescue herself from her accidental logouts, to quell her confusion over which breakout group to join, to show her (again) how to make a text box in her Google slide, and to calm her uncertainty about the real purpose of ten-frames and whether they actually make math easier (I agree with her: it does get harder before it gets easier, as with so much in life).

Meanwhile, my ten-year-old was busy learning at her new desk in her bedroom-that-is-also-her-classroom. But she was not learning from her brilliant teacher about American history, prime factorization, dangling participles or any of the other things she is actually supposed to be doing, but instead from the two boys who’d been assigned to her breakout room about — wait for it — Garbage Pail Kids, which are apparently having a major comeback. As I eavesdropped on their conversation — my curiosity piqued by her squeals of “Ewww, that’s disgusting!” — I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

And thanks to the beauty of the world wide web, in which we all find ourselves hopelessly tangled — now more than ever — there is no escaping any of this: the dashing up and down the stairs to help our children in their alternating (and sometimes simultaneous) IT-induced crises, the incursion of very loud (and often slightly yucky) ten-year-old boys into one’s home via the magic of the virtual classroom, the competing sounds of three different Zoom calls happening all at once. But unless you wish to crawl under an actual rock or at the very least your duvet, which has been seriously tempting of late, you are stuck riding those waves which we are now forced to surf through the ether.

Ironically, we currently live in Surf City, USA, and although I grew up in a town fetishised in a Beach Boys song, none of us actually surf on a board in the ocean. Instead we find ourselves almost constantly surfing the world wide web. As we all know all too well by now, it promises us a bigger, better, faster life, and in fact just leaves us enmeshed, ensnared, and trapped. It offers us information, but not knowledge. It offers us falsehoods masquerading as facts. It exposes our children to dangers we never knew as children, and so we are constantly on the defensive, worrying and wondering where we’ve left a breach in the wall that we cannot see or even imagine; we — and especially they — are more vulnerable than ever before. It offers us freedom, and yet captures our minds and our personal data and leaves us feeling empty and hollow and not a little bit stressed.

Just the other week, as I was up to my ears in all of the technical and emotional chaos that virtual learning entails, one of those data breaches allowed a particularly blood-thirsty spider out there in that web to ensnare me in its sticky silk, steal my identity (again), and endanger all that I hold dear — or at least my money and my good name. That vicious arachnid (and I don’t mean to impugn our eight-legged friends — Charlotte imprinted herself on my heart at a young age so I never, ever deliberately hurt a spider — but I’m just going with this spider metaphor here) robbed me not just of yet more of my personal data, but also of my peace of mind. My entire week was hijacked, as I dealt with banks, credit card companies and credit bureaux. So instead of enjoying the fact that my children were now occupied with something other than TV and video games, I was deeply stressed: there was no yoga, there was no fun, there was none of the mental quiet I’ve worked so hard to create and maintain during these exhausting and uncertain times. The whole experience made me want to erase my digital footprint entirely, stuff my money under my mattress (attention, all you would-be burglars: I didn’t actually do that), and fashion a hat out of aluminium foil so they can’t intercept my brainwaves.

This is not the first time a burglar has ransacked my carefully constructed digital home, and it’s unlikely to be the last; it could have been the same someone, or the first thieves might have sold me on to an even larger and more aggressive cyber crime ring. I thought I had protected myself better after the last time, and I will now spend hours and days grudgingly increasing the fortress around myself, bracing myself for the next onslaught. But I will also make myself smaller and harder to find: less online shopping, more in-person experiences, fewer passwords, more real conversation. Things will take longer, and I’m just fine with that. I have deleted the apps that are supposed to make things easier, and will pick up the phone. I will use paper and pen. Our landline is being reinstalled shortly. As we’ve discovered during our COVID-induced paralysis, the world won’t actually stop turning if we all slow down a little bit.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done a digital purge and lived to tell the tale. I have always had a love-hate relationship with IT. (Actually, it’s really a hate-hate relationship, but I am working on being less cynical and angry these days, so I’m trying to feel just a tiny bit of love here. Waiting… Nope. Nothing. Still hate it.) So for Luddites like me the realities of being completely and utterly dependent on it for everything — from grocery shopping to chats with friends to banking — has been especially excruciating. My husband tries — rather foolishly, on the evidence — to point out that no matter how much I shout at a computer when it doesn’t do what I want, it’s not going to start suddenly doing (or not doing) what it’s been persistently doing in a clearly concerted effort to compromise my sanity: it’s a machine. His kindness towards inanimate objects of the computorial variety is admirable, just as my impatience towards them is ludicrous. But Einstein perhaps foresaw the misery we would create for ourselves with our over-dependence on smart-but-dumb devices: “insanity,” he reminded us, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Which captures my IT experiences to, well, a T. That T and I just don’t get along. So, yes, I hate IT. (Ahhh, it feels good to own my loathing).

I am not alone in my mistrust of and frustration with IT. My grandfather, who lived a storied, expansive, and truly extraordinary life, sent an email in the late 1990s, his first. It was entitled “Help, I have a computer”. Having not typed since law school in the 1930s — after that he had secretaries to do it for him — the act of typing and simultaneously jumping feet first into cyberspace was both brilliant and brave. I remember him every time I have to do something I don’t want to do in the digital world — which is basically daily — and I press ahead, thanks to his wonderful example of feeling-the-fear-and-doing-it-anyway.

The more astute among you will have noticed that you are, in fact, reading this blog on my WEBsite. This does not make me a hypocrite, but rather all the more proud of myself for setting up this site all on my own, with no external help whatsoever from anyone at all. Yes, I made my career making physical books made out of actual paper with actual pages that you have to turn with your actual fingers, but I didn’t have a long and generally successful time in publishing without occasionally using digital technology to create those physical objects. Current tirade aside, I accept, of course, that in order to live in this time and this place we must interact at least somewhat with the wonders of the world wide web.

But my fifteen-year delay in getting onto social media ended only because a global pandemic started. I joined Facebook only to help my children connect with their friends (and frankly, we haven’t quite sorted that out yet because — of course — it won’t let me configure their profiles on eight out of the nine devices we own, thereby proving my belief that IT causes more problems than it solves). I got onto Instagram when I realised that might be the only way of seeing what my friends and family were doing, since my noble-but-unrealistic belief that I would actually establish a proper email correspondence with each one of them (not a letter delivered by carrier pigeon; I’m not that hopeless) was creating burdens for my time-hungry loved ones and meant that I was falling further out of touch with my friends and family who are all over this planet.

So here I am, communicating with you, dear reader, through the wonder of the web. Because while spider webs can be sticky and irritating and downright lethal (if you’re a fly), they can also be beautiful, spangled with dew on an autumn morning, magical and mysterious and awe-inspiring. That web I have disparaged for the last several paragraphs also binds us together when we are far apart, it ties us to our loved ones whom we cannot see during these difficult times, it strengthens our bonds across the miles. Its powers of binding and sticking and tying are a wonderful thing, at which we should marvel and for which I am — despite all the ranting — deeply grateful. And spiders offer us an example from which we might all learn: nimble and graceful, they never get tangled up in their own web, but deftly go about their business with a focus and a purpose that I envy now more than ever.

So the internet can be a glorious thing, but like the spiders who weave those webs, we must approach cautiously, for we do not always know whether it be friend or foe. It is — alarmingly often — wildly inaccurate and full of baffling errors. For example, if you google me (I did it once after setting up my website to see if it showed up; it did not, of course), you will discover that I am a musical artist. Now, for those of you who know me anything more than moderately well, this will come as something of a hilarious shock. I am no more a musical artist than my car is, no more a singer or maker of music than any other ordinary household object. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that pretty much anything in my home or yours is more musical than me: sunglasses, a lamp, a pair of scissors. But there, for all eternity are the words that have confused the many lovely librarians and teachers who have invited me to share my book with children, hoping I would show up like Julie Andrews with my guitar slung over my shoulder… and having to compromise for a mere music-free reading instead.

So I share this story as a cautionary tale for my children, along with one of my favorites about a certain wildly popular — nay, ubiquitous — online presence that purports to be an encyclopedia: as a journalist from a highly respected British newspaper noted, its article about that same newspaper contained no less than seven factual errors. Online, as in life, there is little you can trust. Which of course deeply saddens me: our children are on ever shakier ground, whichever realm they inhabit. They are taught about cyberbullying as well as how to deal with physical bullies; they are taught that stranger danger is real both online and in life. But as the lines between what’s virtual and what’s real begin to blur — nowhere more than in our new hybrid model of learning — confusion lurks. They must grapple with a layer of information (too much of it), of danger, of complication that their parents and grandparents did not face until adulthood. They are forced to grow up faster than ever, as they are promised too much choice and too much knowledge, without the understanding to discern what is right and wrong about it all. So even as they were supposedly staying safer at home, I wonder what all of that screen time — hours and hours of it — has done to their eyesight, their minds, and their souls.

As I look back at the spring, when we were all scrambling to adjust to our new reality, and our teachers delivered an impressively cohesive curriculum after just two weeks of turnaround time, I remember particular moments of achievement and connection which were so alien and new: instead of awards for being a good citizen and student, instead of field trips and performances and parties, their world narrowed so sharply and quickly that their tiny triumphs were heartbreaking to see.

“Wow!” said my first grader. “This is the best day of my life!” Previously those words would have been uttered upon receiving an award or performing in the talent show for which she’d been practicing for weeks and which was cancelled the week before it was due to take place. But in our new normal, the cause of her elation was that in her new level in their online math program, the software shifted to offering narrower percentage bands per question, so she could now achieve a 91% on her progress towards her goal, instead of jumping from 73% to 100%. We had no idea know why this is so thrilling — after all it meant she was simply answering more questions per level — but she broke out beat-boxing and squealing with happiness. The day before she had crowed with joy that her piece of paper printed out just like it looked online — by no means a regular occurrence. Meanwhile, on her side of the dining room table, my older daughter sat in her headphones, listening to her math lessons and reading sessions over and over, just to hear her teacher’s voice. It was both touching and pitiful to watch her grinning at the screen.

But at least I got to watch and witness it all, as we sat together around our dining table, each on a separate device. At least we were together in our solitude. At least we were all present in our absence. Now, they are gone. The house is empty and quiet and lonely. It misses them almost as much as I do. And even when they’re home, they’re not here with me: we are now all occupying separate spaces. As we polished up our act for round two of distance learning, we bought our fifth grader a desk, to help her feel independent and more grown up (her idea, not ours), and of course we then had to come up with a similarly “grown up” work space for our second grader, still near enough to me that she could ask her constant questions, but with a door to close for quiet and a sense of going to school all by herself, like a big girl should.

By day 13 of Distance Learning: The Reboot, I had eaten my body weight in roasted cashew nuts (that’s what I get for using edible manipulatives to help my second grader understand ten frames), and was contemplating stabbing myself in the eyeball with a very sharp pencil, just to see what would happen. The initial excitement — of having a focus and a purpose and (for the parents, at least) of knowing that their screen time was at least a tiny bit edifying — had worn off quickly, as we looked ahead at what may well be an entire academic year of being stuck in front of screens, in different rooms, struggling with frustration and confusion and sadness all alone, all over again.

Because while it’s a pleasant change from the crowded dining table, and the annoying headphones that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and the dangerous tangle of cords that more than one of us tripped over more than once, our new setup is also lonelier and more separate, which is not necessarily good in a time of loneliness and separation. They wanted to feel less watched over, and yet they are more vulnerable to isolation and screen fatigue than ever, as the online curriculum has expanded to fill an entire school day.

So it was with great excitement that we all headed off today on our first morning school run since March. My children were overjoyed at the prospect of being surrounded by friends and classmates, of learning from a teacher, using pencils and paper, of being in familiar spaces they missed more than they ever imagined possible. They are free from me, and I am free from dealing with their IT aggro and their near-constant bickering. I am — for three hours, twice a week, for as long as our county can keep its act together — freed from having to be the emotional sponge for three people trying to renegotiate their relationship with school and work. I am no longer on tap twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, as I have been for half of the longest, hardest year of our lives. Parts of me that have felt neglected and dead may even start to regenerate. My brain might start to work once more; I can actually feel the gears grinding again today. My joy at seeing emails from two of my publishers and from my agent mirrors the joy my husband and children are feeling today: I have work, I have purpose, I have a place in the wider world again.

But I also wept when I dropped them off, because of course I had a purpose for the past six months. I’ve been momming hard, harder than I ever have before, if not necessarily well. Our house became our whole world, so my job was to become the human dishcloth, sopping up their fears and worries and anger and frustration and sadness every time they spilled out, which was often. I felt perpetually unfit for the job in front of me — and I don’t know any parent who did much more than keep them safe and fed and content if not happy — but I did my job because I had to, under more pressure than I’ve ever done a job before. I did not always perform with grace under that pressure, but I got the job done.

So as we return to some semblance of normalcy today, and a return to my actual job of writing becomes possible, I am sad not to have my children here with me and I am worried for their safety despite all the precautions. For their part, I imagine there was very little sadness or worry, and that’s just how it should be; they’ve had far too much of both for far too long now. I miss our tangled web of cords in our home classroom, but they won’t miss me watching them all the time, their every move scrutinised and often corrected. They will have the freedom to make their own mistakes, to make their own choices, to have other adults participate in a real and meaningful way in shaping who they become.

And before I disentangle myself from what may be the longest post I’ve written to date (those three minute intervals I previously snatched to write over the spring and summer helped promote brevity, if nothing else), I will take a moment to thank our teachers, once more. They are teaching both in person and online, which is essentially two full-time jobs, to two different groups of students, knowing that neither one is getting all of the attention they would like to give them. But it is their enormous effort, and that of the amazing administrators and boards who have worked so hard to craft this system which is slightly dizzying in its complexity, that is permitting us all to recapture a small portion of our former lives, even if only for a few hours a week. Even as they risk their personal health and well being, these teachers are also still coping with the insanity of teaching online, where children cut their siblings’ hair during class and live chickens run around bedrooms (true story). So their virtual classrooms are surreal but safe, and their physical classrooms are dear but dangerous, and our teachers heroically take it all in their graceful stride.

Distance learning has been far more about the distance — from normality, from other humans — than about the learning. But as I try to remind my children and myself, we are learning other things too, including a flexibility that we never knew we had. After the elation of two days in the classroom, my children and I will all pivot (I hate that word almost as much as I hate IT) back to the distance model for the rest of the week. Poorly qualified to teach, and not at all qualified to troubleshoot IT glitches, I will be stepping back into both those pairs of shoes.

These days I have lots of pairs of shoes, because also mom and also wife, and — oh look!— those four pairs of shoes mean that I actually have eight legs.

Just like a spider.

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