On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio
Catie's Grandmother Goes To Camp
Last summer my mom went to computer camp. The camp, The Computer Tutor, was located in Avalon, a small seashore resort town in southern New Jersey. My daughter Catie was also enrolled in a computer camp—Computer FUNdamentals, at Hollins College here in Roanoke, Virginia. (See my column "The World Inside Computer Camps," in last month's COMPUTE! for more on computer camps for children.)
My mom is 58. My daughter Catie is 7. Catie and her grandmother are more than half a century apart in age. Yet, by coincidence, they were enrolled in computer camp at the same time, learning the same thing. I thought that was neat. And significant.
The Candy Store
Millions of adults find themselves on the outside of the computer revolution and they don't know how to get in. They are like a little kid with his face squashed against the display window of a fantastic candy store. They would love to join the other kids inside the store, but they can't find the door.
Computer camps can be one door into computer literacy and computer intimacy for fearful but interested adults. Full-fledged camps for adults are springing up all over the U.S. Adults enroll in the camps for a period of one or two weeks. Many of the camps combine indoor computer instruction with outdoor exercise.
Adult campers usually begin computing slowly, but they quickly pick up the pace. By the end of camp they spend up to ten hours a day in marathon keyboard sessions. And they get hooked. According to the daughter of one 68-year-old camper, "We had to drag mom away from the machine just to make sure she got nourishment."
Computer Day Camp
Not all computer camps are so intense. My mother's computer camp, The Computer Tutor, was only a day camp. My mother attended the camp for three hours a day for five days. Each night when she finished computing, she returned home to my father.
There were four computers, with two people on each computer. The instructor was a teacher at Avalon's lone elementary school. There was one 9-year-old girl enrolled in the camp and a 14-year-old-boy with his father in tow. The rest of the campers were women.
The camp's goal was to teach the basics of computers, including the terminology, a little bit of BASIC programming, and use of the computer keyboard. According to my mother: "Our instructor tried to teach us a lot in a short time. I learned how to do some programming and some graphics. We learned about the disk and about copying and saving."
The Joy Of Flying Solo
My mother's most exciting day came when she got to use the computer on her own. "One day," she said, "I worked by myself. That was great! I felt that if I had done that every day I would have gotten more out of the class."
According to my mother, one of the drawbacks of the course was that the instructor had so much to teach and so little time. "You're trying to jam so much into a few hours that it gets very confusing. Having a computer to practice things on would have made things easier."
It was interesting for my mother to watch her classmates' reaction to computers and compare their reactions with her own. "My college secretarial courses on touch-typing helped me a lot," she said. "Being a typist eliminated some of my fear of computers right away. But I was still cautious.
"There were others who were more willing to jump right in," she admitted. "Some of the people got right to work on the computer and tried to invent things right away. Others were quite leery and wouldn't do things until they were taught. This group included me."
Life After Computer Camp
"Computer camp was great," my mother said. "It whetted my appetite for computers. After it was over, I wanted to continue learning more.
"The only problem was I couldn't find any more courses that fit my schedule. I began to worry that I would forget everything I had learned at camp. I decided that the only way to keep learning was to get my own computer. My husband was very supportive. He said he'd get me a low-cost computer as a combined birthday and anniversary gift. He was so proud that I had gone to the camp and that I was learning about computers and having fun."
Grandmother Computer Chic
When my mother got her computer home, at first she couldn't decide where to put it. She ended up putting it on the kitchen table. With its software, manuals, and electric cables, the computer took up almost the whole table.
My mother and father now have to eat their meals on a tiny corner of the table opposite the computer. My mother eats her meals while she is studying the gift certificates she got with her computer. While my father is eating, he just stares at the back of the computer.
My mother is very proud of her new computer. When she first got it, she invited all her friends and family over to see it. The reactions were diverse.
Her grandchildren, Shannon (8) and Laurel (5), were fascinated with the computer's voice synthesizer and the Sesame Street computer games my mother bought. Both grandchildren use computers at school and arrived with the impression that they were "way ahead of Mom Mom" on the computer. But Mom Mom held her own. She got a great deal of pleasure out of being an honorary Whiz Kid.
Mom's friends have had all sorts of reactions. They are proud of her and are amazed that she went out and bought a computer. They are even more amazed that she actually seems to be using it—to write letters using Bank Street Writer and to create Christmas-card mailing labels using PFS:File.
This year Mom's friends are bragging that they all got Christmas cards addressed by Mom's computer. "I could tell it was a computer that did it," one friend told me, "because it put my last name first on the envelope."
Mom's friends think that she uses her computer all the time. When they call her on the phone, if she sounds vague or distracted, they say, "Libby, are you playing with your computer again?"
Most of Mom's friends are very proud of what she is doing, but they are reluctant to follow in her footsteps. "I know computers are the up and coming thing," one friend told her. "But I could never work one. I'd be lost."
My mother laughs at this kind of reaction. "The biggest thing I have found," she says, "is how easy computers are. I thought they would be much harder."
Then she shrugs and frowns. "It's funny, though," she says. "They are easy, but you still need someone to call on—just for help on the simple things. The most frustrating part is when you are working by yourself and you come to a standstill because a certain button doesn't work. It always worked before, but now it doesn't work, and you feel completely lost and you don't know what to do.
"A person needs someone to call when they feel frustrated—someone to help them, someone to follow up. And half the time advice over the phone is not enough. You need someone looking over your shoulder to see exactly what you're doing. The problem is always something small, but it's enough to stop you in your tracks."
How Grandmothers Get Intimate With Their Computers
According to my mother, "The most exciting time I had with my computer was when I made the mailing labels come out on the printer. 'Look!' I shouted. 'It works! I figured it out myself!'
"Using a computer is like eating Chinese food," my mother told me. "You eat Chinese food, and it tastes great. Then, soon after you are done eating, you are hungry for more.
"Computers are the same way. You do something on it, and it feels great. Then you run out of things to do and you say, 'What can I do now?' It's very frustrating. I have so much fun working on it, but then I finish, and I think I have to invent something new. But to do something new I have to learn more about the computer. It's like I am always hungry for more computing. My appetite keeps growing."
I'm Not Leaving My Computer!
Each winter my mother and father fly south along with the birds. They spend the cold, bitter months in a little resort town tucked away in the Florida keys. My mother flees the Philadelphia area around Thanksgiving, usually after the first cold, soggy November rainstorm.
But this year is different. When Thanksgiving came and went and my mother was still in the Philadelphia area, her friends became puzzled and asked her why she wasn't heading south.
"I'd like to get away from this cold weather," my mother replied. "But I'm not going to leave my computer!"
Mom's Bright Idea
By mid-November my mother had so many manuals, cables, software boxes, and add-ons she would have needed to rent a U-Haul trailer to get her computer down to Florida.
She checked into renting a station wagon and having my brother drive her computer to Florida. Then she realized that her cottage there was barely large enough for her and my father. She and my father have a loving but stormy relationship. She could imagine what would happen if my father arrived in Florida and found that he had been replaced by a computer.
What was my mother to do? She really wanted to go to Florida, but she couldn't bear to leave her computer in Pennsylvania. Yet she didn't dare take it with her.
My mother is no dumb bunny. She wanted a computer in Florida, so if her Pennsylvania computer wouldn't fit, the answer was obvious: She needed a new computer—a smallish kind of computer that she could squeeze into the Florida cottage along with her and my father.
Once my mother has a good idea she doesn't waste any time putting it into action. As I write this article, she is busy saving up for a new computer—a portable.
And she's keeping busy on her old computer, using her spreadsheet to chart her stocks and bonds and keeping an inventory of furniture and other household possessions. And she's churning out a snowstorm of letters to me on her word processor.
It All Started With Computer Camp
I've been away from home for seventeen years, yet I have gotten more letters from my mother in the last couple of months than in all those seventeen years combined. And all the letters are chock full of motherly advice (not to mention nagging).
Each morning I go to the mailbox and find two more letters from my mother—all generated on her infernal (excuse me, Mom) word processor.
I'm beginning to wonder if I did the right thing. Was it really such a good idea to get my mother turned on to computers?
She's beginning to talk about electronic mail and linking us up on a Bulletin Board System. This way she can download ideas and advice anytime she wants, maybe even several times a day. It will be just as if she lived next door.
I'm very proud of Mom. And I'm glad that she went to computer camp. The only thing that worries me is where is this going to end?
My advice to those of you out there with mothers and grandmothers is simple: Once you start them computing, watch out!