My father was a foreign correspondent, and during my childhood, my family and I spent our lives traipsing beside him from country to country. During these years, when most flights weren’t direct, I remember many run-ins with airport staff and other bureaucrats in back offices.
Often this was at some airport when flights were overbooked or canceled. Tickets that had been bought, plans that had been made, then became useless, no matter how much fuss, no matter how much shouting.
Taking on the Massachusetts COVID-19 website, I experienced the same feelings I’d had as a child at foreign airports or ferry terminals or border crossings. A loss of control, a sense of slight panic that even my formidable dad couldn’t budge that stubborn man or, more often, woman behind the desk. It made me remember riding a Swiss train either to or from Zurich and the large Germanic conductor who, each time she strode down the aisle, officiously picked up my spoon from my saucer and dunked it in my mug of hot chocolate. My father, who sat across from me, started to laugh. I removed the spoon again just to see if … yes, there she goes again!
No matter how many times I started over and entered the correct information for the vaccines, or how loudly I grumbled, my laptop readjusted the facts. The day before, taking too long to gather the relevant information, I’d lost two appointments in North Adams. Not a great choice for my 80-plus-year-old parents, who live near Boston.
I had all the information at my fingertips: birth years, copies of front and backs of insurance cards. Yet each time I reached the end of what we now call “the process,” the final registration form insisted my father was female. Oh well, sod that, I thought. Binaries are out these days. OK, I told that Germanic conductress in my laptop, have it your way, my dad is female then. I plowed on. The result was that my mother found two e-mailed vaccine appointments in her name for Fenway the next morning.
I’m sure there are reasons for everything. I have since learned that if I wanted to run two tabs on my computer for registering my mother and father, I should have used two browsers. I should have used Chrome and Safari, for instance. I’ve always wondered if that spoon in the mug helps prevent spills on a moving train.
“You just have to approach registering online as if you are dealing with a stubborn or inept bureaucrat,” I told my dad, as I searched available appointments — miraculously — at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro. For Moderna rather than Pfizer.
“It puts me in mind of something else,” he said. “Being down in one of the inner circles of hell.
“To me,” he went on, “chrome is what’s on my car, and a safari is something I might take my children on.” This made me wonder who or what my children imagine they are dealing with when so many of our struggles take place alone over the laptop.
Once upon a time, the search engine Safari must have made me think of wild animals too. Once upon a time, I never believed I would actually miss those stubborn women sitting behind airport counters or the Germanic conductress stalking the train for incorrect spoon placement.
Alice Greenway is the author of “White Ghost Girls” and “The Bird Skinner.”