Monday, October 10, 2011

Googling Yesterday

My son has found a new toy.  He recently downloaded Google Earth, the program that provides images of Earth down to street level views with amazing speed, clarity and precision.  I had seen the program before, but this was a revelation for young Thomas.  He couldn’t wait to show me how it worked.  Not wanting to be the Bad Father, and crush his enthusiasm with a standard issue, “Maybe later”, I indulged him. 
I stood over his shoulder while he navigated.  He zoomed into New York City to show me the streets we had walked together.  He zoomed into Nationals Park where we’ve seen dozens of games together.  He was most impressed by the program’s ability to provide a street level view in three dimensions, just as if we were walking down the virtual street.  With Google Earth, he could relive the experience of visiting new places with me again and again.  A safer version of Total Recall, you might say. 
As I said, I wanted to indulge the boy, and this looked like an opportunity for us to bond awhile longer in front of a screen other than the TV.  I decided to combine technology and narcissism to demonstrate to my son what Google Earth could really do.  I typed in the address of my boyhood house, and there it was. 
Home, home again.
I like to be here when I can.

There were the streets of my neighborhood.  I could see my grammar school where Sister Helen Catherine taught me math and Sister Agnes taught me to keep a clean desk (lest she dump the entire contents into the aisle).  I could see the backyards where I used to run and hide during epic games of war, armed only with my trusty pointed stick.  I was glad to see that there were still no fences between the houses to slow children down or herd them in.  From 5 miles above, everything appeared to me just as it did in 1971.  Nothing had changed.
My house was standing right where I had left it, but it was hard to fully relive the experience while staring at the digital roof from above.  I tried to rotate the image as Thomas had done with Nationals Park.  I wanted the 3-D version with a view of the front porch so we could take a virtual stroll up the stairs and through the front door. 
I discovered the limitation of Google Earth.  The front of my boyhood home could not be seen.  Everything appeared flat, without depth or detail, and it of course would remain so.  I was disappointed and deflated.  Looking at a current view of where I grew up was not the same as having been there, no matter how hard I wish it were so.  What had started as a fun Internet stroll down Memory Lane had reached a dead end.  I was no longer daydreaming on Memory Lane.  I was in my current house, 40 years in the future, and my back was starting to ache from bending over the keyboard, bossing around some innocent little kid with my freckles and (Lord, help him) my sense of humor.

That’s OK.  As I told my stories of boyhood, I realized that what Thomas was probably hearing was flat, one-dimensional tales.  He did not have the ability to rotate my recollections and make them three dimensional.  He hadn’t lived my life, and my words and body language, my tone of voice, my facial expressions could only give my youth so much depth or detail before the limits of my storytelling were apparent.  Just as Google cannot sufficiently replicate the street where I grew up, I cannot replicate the texture of my past to my son.  He’ll have to piece that view together with the insufficient pixels I allow him to see from time to time. 
The Google view was from 30,000 feet; my view was from 40 years ago, and both were somewhat blurry.  Google’s technology may improve with time, and things will come into greater focus.  I won’t be so lucky.
I guess those life experiences will have to remain mine and mine alone.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’ll just blog about it, and that will have to do, until the movie comes out (starring Jim Carrey).

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