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Taming Tech Terror
New computers, new horrors and why it pays to have a grade-schooler around.

A close friend of mine e-mailed me the other day with what she’d convinced herself was good news. Her 22-year-old son was moving out. He’d found an apartment with a friend, and his new job in systems would pay enough to cover his share of the rent.
“That’s terrific,” I said. “It’s a really positive step for him.”

I meant every word of it, of course. But I had other thoughts—and they went something like this:

“Wait a minute. He’s a really nice kid. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. You’re crazy about his new girlfriend. And for crying out loud, he’s your tech support! How can you let him out of the house? You have no idea what it’s like to place your life in the hands of someone in a city you can’t spell or find on the map. You need to think really carefully about this.”

Like me, the woman runs her business from home. Like me, she is over 50. And like most boomer-and-beyonds who don’t work in large offices, she now faces a life of impenetrable online manuals, tangled wires encrusted with dust-bunnies, and drop-down menus from hell—not to mention sheer terror.

I tasted that terror recently when my new laptop arrived. I put it in a corner of my apartment’s living room and it sat there as I found excuses not to deal with it.

The box didn’t go away, of course.

Finally, it began to remind me of the ashes that spent years in one couple’s coat closet. “Mother never told me where she wanted them scattered,” the wife used to say.

When you start making free associations like this, you don’t need a therapist to tell you what they mean. So I unpacked the laptop, noting that it seemed much lighter and sleeker than its predecessor, whose ashes were probably reposing somewhere in a landfill or abandoned strip mine. The directions to get it going were IKEA-basic, although I had to inspect the thing from several angles to find the right aperture for the power cord—sort of like a cat or dog poking a new toy from the pet store with one paw and holding up a multi-lingual diagram the size of a bed sheet in the other.

Windows Vista had replaced Windows XP, but Microsoft Word was nestled into it the same way, like your favorite couch in a new house. The new laser mouse was a tougher kill, like moving on to the next level of a video game. It took 15 minutes of fumbling to get it going, which beat the alternatives: driving 20 miles to a friend who has an 8-year-old grandson or dropping by the local elementary school like a Woody Allen character and seeing if I could borrow a technologically savvy second-grader.

Internet Explorer and Norton Internet Security were the last—and most formidable—frontiers. I combed through the packing material looking for the wireless card I’d ordered, then figured it was probably embedded in the machine. I packed the laptop into its new carrying case and took it to Milkboy Coffee, home to the nearest wireless hot spot. I ordered a small coffee but quickly changed it to a medium. I’d probably need the extra octane.

The Internet came up quickly, but the virus definitions were much slower and I kept trying to root the spinning cursor on. “So it’s come to this,” I thought. “A middle-aged guy sitting in a suburban coffee shop muttering at a computer. Maybe I should’ve gone downtown, where I would’ve fit in better.”

Finally, they popped in. I took the coffee cup to the trash and headed out onto Lancaster Avenue.

“Have a nice day,” said the guy behind the counter.

“You, too,” I said, wondering why some our greatest triumphs go unnoticed.

Paul Jablow is a freelance writer who lives and works in Bryn Mawr. He spent 30 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer “before they found me out.”