Monday, May 3, 2010

Perils of Skype

I recently dipped a toe into the world of Skype Author visits … with mixed results.

For those who are even less tech-savvy than I (and few are, I suspect): Skype is free software you can download onto your computer which enables you to video-teleconference using a webcam. It’s like turning your laptop into a two-way, interactive television.

Anyway, here’s the scene: I had brilliantly scheduled a Skype meeting with an after-school book group in rural Maine for the 30-minutes before I needed to drive my daughter to her lacrosse practice. My son was supposed to be at a tennis match, and I had set up my laptop in our sunny, open-concept dining room instead of my dark, basement office. The house was quiet, the dog was outside, and I was chatting calmly into my webcam with a group of girls who had just read Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress. Then, the front door slammed open.

Oh no, I’m thinking, as I’m trying to listen to the shy girl on the screen ask a question. The match must’ve been rained out. Please don’t shout “I’m home!!” like you usually do when you open the mudroom door …

Luckily, he didn’t. He strode into the dining room, weighed down by an enormous backpack, his tennis bag, plus the mail he’d just collected, and stared curiously at me while I spoke to my laptop. He’s a fairly intelligent lad, and figured out what I was doing … so instead of speaking, he waved. He started to use sign language/charades of sorts to indicate that he was indeed home (like I didn’t know that?) and that his tennis match was cancelled. He pulled up a chair alongside me, unfolded the newspaper, and started to read the sports section.

Really? I’m thinking. This dude is really going to rattle the newspaper while I Skype? Off-camera, I made a chopping motion to him with one hand, then pointed to the other end of the house. As far as I was concerned, the meaning was clear: beat it.

The dude shrugged. He got up. He sauntered into the kitchen, which is essentially an extension of the dining room. He swung open the fridge door and began rummaging.

Yogurt, I’m thinking. Grapes. A glass of milk. Choose a silent snack. Please, no potato chips. As if he read my mind, he slammed the fridge shut. He turned and zeroed in on the new bag of Cape Cod 40-percent-lower-fat chips.

My sister, Christine Bolzan, who is something of a social media expert in the Boston area and has coached me on Skyping, says it’s very important to keep your gaze focused on the green, pinpoint light of the webcam as you speak. Otherwise, the folks on the other end see you looking into your lap, or staring off into space. Concentrate on keeping your head still; smile pleasantly, she said.

It occurred to me that I’d never asked her what the folks on the other end see if you pick up the laptop and hurl it across the room at your son. Was it Dave Letterman who pioneered MonkeyCam? I was on the verge of pioneering crazed-mother-skyping-author-cam.

“Where do you get your ideas?” one student asked as The Dude, crunching, moved on to the utensils drawer.

I hate my life I hate my life, I’m thinking, as I replied to the green light, “Well, my children have provided a lot of inspiration.” I tried not to watch, but The Dude had found a piece of blank paper and scribbled on it. He approached. He stood before me, waiting, holding his paper.

Why won’t he go away why did I ever have these children, I’m thinking, as the teacher at the school 300 miles away motioned another student up to the camera for a new question. My son, sensing a break in the action, held up his paper. A note.

“I’m going out to get something to eat. Be back soon,” it read.

YOU CAN’T TAKE THE CAR I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR SISTER TO LACROSSE PRACTICE!!! I screamed. In my head. My still head. As I smiled pleasantly at the nice students on my laptop. As I put up my off-camera hand in a “Halt!” sign, eliciting a confused, disgruntled frown from The Dude.

That’s when the Gods of Skype smiled upon me: we lost the connection. The video froze and I heard the teacher at the other end saying, “Maria, we can’t hear you. Are you there? Are you there? Well, we’re going to try to call again. Hold on everyone.”

In the 20 seconds it took to reconnect I managed to communicate with my son not only my extreme irritation at his distracting me during a Skype author visit, but the imperative that he not take the car in his search for bigger and better snacks unless he also planned to drop his sister off at lax practice. Which he did. Semi-quietly. If the folks at the other end heard any commotion, they were too polite to comment.

Author/teacher Kate Messner wrote a wonderful article about Skype Author Visits for School Library journal which I heartily recommend: You will feel empowered when you read it. You’ll think, “I can do that! How fun! How easy!”

It is, actually. But … beware.


  1. Oh how I love this post. You capture the perils of Skyping in a house full of people just perfectly. My daughter, 8, likes to jump rope in my line of sight while I'm skyping sometimes, so the interruptions you describe (and your reactions!) are just perfect.

  2. She jumps rope ... and you maintain concentration? You are truly the Queen of Skype!

  3. I almost sprayed by laptop screen with the coffee I just took of sip of because I was laughing so hard!! The "crazed-mother-skyping-author-cam" line was the best!

    So after I managed to swallow the coffee that almost ended up elsewhere, I did have a serious question. Is "the Dude" tech savvy? Did he know what you were doing and not care? And by not caring, I don't mean in a bad way but more of a "when you are on Skype, people do look away from the green light" sort of way? He's actions might be more of a difference in tech experience - but somehow I suspect it was more of the "mom - it's about ME" moment.

    Thanks for the great laugh!

  4. Re. The Dude: unfortunately, Tammy, it was the latter. sigh.