Tag: Portal

Visits: Real and Virtual

Last week I was complaining about not being able to see my parents.  Their emails and our phone calls were gradually becoming more bleak.  I wanted to lay eyes on them.  When my mom turned 90 in April, we tried to organize a Google Meeting.  It worked for everyone in the family…except my parents.  For one thing, after many phone conversations, we determined that the reason we were not seeing my mom’s image in the trial run calls was because, well, it turns out that a camera is helpful.  I hadn’t thought of the fact that their old computer, with its separate monitor and hamster-powered processor didn’t have a camera.  That was okay, though, because we had bought them a tablet a few years ago.  It turned out, though, that talking my mom through the process of downloading the Meet extension onto the tablet was a bit stressful for both of us.  I wrote about this in April.

One might think that in the intervening months, I could have worked  out something so that we could actually see each other.  One might be wrong, though.  So, last week, after we tried unsuccessfully to purchase a Chromebook.  It turns out there’s been a bit of a run on Chromebooks lately. Something about remote school?  I don’t know.  I’d say Chromebooks are the new toilet paper, but that might be taken wrong.  Anyway, that didn’t work.  At school, though, a friendly tech guru colleague suggested a new possibility:  the Facebook Portal.  He said it was very easy to set up and to use.

Hmm.  This presented some issues, though.  Some in my extended family have sworn off Facebook on principle.  Something about lax security.  Then there was the fact that there would be a camera on in my parents’ apartment at all times.  My father has long been big on privacy.  During the sixties and seventies, he was pretty sure that because he opposed the Vietnam War and sometimes spoke ill of President Nixon, his phone had likely been tapped and his house bugged.  He was pretty normal in most other respects, but on this, he was a bit extreme.  We sometimes had to whisper when we were saying nice things about George McGovern.  This is all just to say that he probably wouldn’t like the idea of Mark Zuckerberg knowing what he had for breakfast. 

So, naturally, we bought it.

I realized, however, that my sanity and sunny disposition would be in grave jeopardy if I sent this Portal to my parents and tried to guide my mother and father through a remote installation.  This led to a drastic decision on Thursday.  I would get in my car and drive to Maryland (not on the restricted list!).  I would not go alone.  As this operation required both technology and social media savvy, I was required by law to be accompanied by someone under the age of 25.  Sarah agreed to join me.  Our plan was straightforward, though probably not simple:  wake early on Saturday.  Email my mom to tell her we were coming. ( A “morning of” email is required so that both parents are able to sleep the night before and neither will attempt to talk us out of the maneuver.)  Drive swiftly to Maryland.  Don masks.  Enter apartment.  Engage in socially distant conversation for approximately one hour.  Open Portal to the 21st Century.  Install and set up.  Train parents.  Look for any small projects to accomplish.  Apply socially distant hugs.  Depart and drive back to Connecticut.

All went relatively well on the way down.  We listened to an Audible book. Sarah noted that my phone was nearly out of power.  My phone was plugged into a charger, which Sarah, using sophisticated carbon dating techniques, determined was from an earlier century. It was not successfully charging my phone, though it did plug in nicely. Neither Sarah nor I had brought a functioning charger.  We were taking this “zip in-zip out” operation very seriously.

We arrived around noon, engaged in the planned conversation, most of which revolved around the disappearance of my mom’s friend from the apartment upstairs.  She was nowhere to be found after venturing on an errand to the farmer’s market.  My mom was worried.  After all, at 92, her friend was more elderly than my mom.  Sarah and I checked her apartment and didn’t find her.  She later turned up bearing a jug of cider, having arrived late to the market and missed all the good veggies. She did not recognize me with my mask, and therefore handed me the cider and dashed off.

We transitioned to step 2.  The installation went smoothly, my mom quickly locating both the wifi code AND her Facebook password.  I allowed as how I would have taken much longer on the latter quest.  Now came the part we had dreaded:  step 3, training.

Portal works in the same way as Alexa and Siri.  All you have to do is remember to say, “Hey Portal…”  This, however, is not as easy as it might seem.  It turns out that Portal has pretty good hearing..  Here’s how training went:

Sarah:  Grandma, if you want to call Dad, just say, “Hey Portal, call Peter.”

Portal:  Calling Peter.

Mom:  What?

Me:  Oh, crap, my phone is ringing.

Sarah:  Hey Portal, hang up.

Portal:  Hanging up.

Me:  So, Mom, why don’t you try it?

Mom:  What do I do?

Me:  Say, “Hey Portal, call Peter.”

Portal:  Calling Peter.

Me: Oh crap. No.  Hang up.

Mom:  What?

Sarah:  Dad, you forgot to say, “Hey Portal.”

Portal:  How can I help you?

Me:  Hang up!!

Portal:  Hanging up.

Sarah:  Okay, Grandma, here’s what you do.  You start by getting its attention.  You just say, “H-E-Y   P-O-R-T-A-L…”

Mom:  Okay, “Hey Portal.”

Me:  Keep going…

Mom:  I said it.

Sarah:  Right, you said “Hey Portal–”

Portal:  How can I help you?

Me:  Shut up!  Will you?

Mom:  Me?

Me: No, the darn Portal.

Sarah:  But Grandma, after you get its attention, you have to tell it to do something.

Mom:  Okay.

Sarah:  So, go ahead and try it.  Say, you know what, and then tell it to call someone.

Mom:  Okay.  Hey Portal…

Sarah:  Keep going…

Mom:  Call Peter, even though he’s right here.

Portal:  I can’t find a contact named Peter Eventhoughesrighthere.

So, the training was not quite as easy as the box might make it seem.  In the end my mom shrugged.  “Mmm…  I still think the phone is a pretty good way to communicate.”

It was at this point that I began looking around for other chores.  

The next morning we had a nice Portal conversation with my sister in North Carolina (not an approved travel destination!) and yesterday evening we chatted with my parents, who were able to answer the Portal’s chime, though my father was out of the room when the camera came on.  I was worried that maybe he didn’t want to have Facebook peering into his dining room, but my mom assured me that that wasn’t the problem.  The Portal’s chime had confused him. He was answering the door, the real portal.  No one was there.