It all started Christmas of 1997 and I hold myself completely responsible. For years my siblings and I would get our parents the least exciting and most utilitarian Christmas gifts imaginable; the gift card to their local grocery store, sweaters, robes and slippers, and the ever boring cash. Then one year I had the crazy idea that Mom and Dad might like a computer. It was borderline ridiculous; given their idea of high tech was a touch-tone phone.
Indeed, they saw no good reason to give up their 1950’s Western Electric 5302 model rotary phone that woke up the house when it rang. They were disappointed when Ma Bell broke up and you had to return your old phone to the Bell Atlantic store and buy a cheap, light plastic one that was no substitute for Old Reliable. Still, I thought a little advancement in the technology department would be good for them, and what fun it would be to see the looks on their faces when they opened up their gifts that year.
Dad had been in retirement for a while by that fall. After many grueling years running his own small business, he was finally getting his overdue rest. He and Mom had their usual routine of going out for breakfast, running to the store and making a few errands here and there during the week. But other than that and some weekend trips to Atlantic City, their retirement years were fairly monotonous. So I thought we could jazz things up a bit with a computer and get them on the Internet and check out this thing called AOL that was, at the time, still in its infancy.
A few months before that Christmas, I suggested to my brother and sisters that we split the cost of a desktop computer. Surprisingly, no one balked at the idea. I wish now someone had the sense to ask “And what are they going to do with it?” so we could have realized our mistake and bought them something easier to use; you know, like a mass spectrometer.
It was really exciting when we delivered it to the house Christmas day. Dad came to the door, and in a jolly bewildered voice yelled “What the heck is this?” He couldn’t contain himself and neither could Mom. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be a gift certificate Christmas. Before anyone could even think of opening their own gifts, we had to have them open up theirs first. Mom didn’t want to open such a big gift because she never asked for anything in her life and felt so weird about opening up something so huge. But Dad was intrigued.
The looks on their faces when they saw what it was couldn’t have made us happier. A computing consultant by trade, I was anointed the one to configure everything and so began the proceedings. I plugged everything in and got right down to the good stuff, getting them on AOL, which we kids also chipped in together to get. This was a truly momentous day. Mom and Dad were entering unknown territory. They were going to surf the web.
The decision I made next would ruin me for years to come. After we got online and poked around a bit, I showed him how to play a game on AOL called Slingo. It’s basically a flip-card game where you click numbered tiles on the board that match ones that appear at the bottom of the screen whenever you click the spin button. Harmless, I thought. It’s just a silly game, something to show him you can do on the computer.
Fast-forward ten years and – as God is my witness – he’s still playing the game. In a good game, one averages about 5,000 points, as long as “The Devil” doesn’t appear in the bottom row to steal all your points and you have to start collecting them again. His lifetime score as of today is 1,495,678,435. Yeah, billion. You do the math. OK, I’ll do the math. That’s about three hundred thousand games.
He should be in a mental institution by now, rocking back and forth and hearing Slingo buzzes and dings in his sleep. But he’s not. He’s trying to crack into the top 100 positions on the scoreboard that’s been keeping track of everyone who’s ever played the game in the last ten years. Since his efforts began, he’s achieved Slingo Masters status. It can take months to move up just one position in the list. He’s at 108. I do believe he will not actually allow himself to die before he’s in the Top 100.
Games aside, he’s using the computer for some other fun things, although email’s not one of them. He prides himself on not using email because “I don’t get any spam that way!” As a computing consultant at a local university, I’d like to see how it would fly if I told my clients “Hey, you know how you can avoid all that spam in your inbox? Don’t give out your email address or send any email!”
In addition to occasionally browsing the Internet for news stories, he also discovered Internet radio. This is important because there are only so many polka radio stations in the area. Yes, polka. There may have been a local one at some point, but it’s probably defunct now because they only had two listeners, my Mom and Dad.
How much do they love polka? Well, you know how teenagers are prone to blasting their stereos so loud the cops are called by the crabby neighbors who hate hearing “that music the kids play these days?” That wasn’t our house exactly. The cops didn’t come to shut us down. They came after the neighbors complained about Dad’s infernal polka music being blared from our insane stereo system with two gigantic speakers that were so big you could serve Thanksgiving dinner on them. These were teeth-rattling speakers and when you blasted them, walls shook, babies cried and the cops came.
So Dad loves the idea that he and Mom now have worldwide access to their beloved polka music from stations near and far. He’s managed to locate stations from states you’d expect polka not be mocked as a musical genre, but embraced and loved, like Wisconsin and Ohio. But he’s also found international stations that broadcast from Germany, Austria and Hungary.
It doesn’t matter he can’t understand what the announcers are saying. All he knows is he can get stations that play the most beautiful music he’s ever heard. But one thing makes him totally lose his mind – when the station feeds stutter and break their connection. Which leads me to the reason for my pain.
“Kathy, can you do anything to make my music keep playing?”
“Yeah, you need broadband access.”
“But I think it’s the computer. The computer isn’t fast enough.”
“No, Dad. It’s because you’re using a slow dial-up connection.”
“But Walmart has this sale on Dell computers. Look!”
He hands me a flyer from the newspaper.
“Dad, it says they have only four in stock. This is ‘bait and switch. They’re going to get you in the store, not have any left, and sell you something you don’t want or need. And, besides, that’s not going to help with the music.”
“Ok. At least let me find you a decent system for a good price.”
So here we are again, buying Dad a new computer. I’m dreading the call to my siblings to ask for more money. My case is this: “Dad insists a newer computer will solve his music-playing problem and I told him it wouldn’t, but he disagrees and if you guys don’t give me $200 towards a new PC for Dad, he’s going to go to Walmart and buy a Flintstone computer and then I’ll have to support THAT!”
The checks started rolling in the next week. If there’s one argument to be made for forking over money to me it’s the thought that at least they don’t get calls at all hours about how this or that doesn’t work and can you fix it? They’re basically paying for not having to play the tech support game.
A couple weeks went by while I shopped for the best price on a desktop and when the price was right, I locked in and bought it. The computer arrived at my office a mere four days later. I configured it with some software he might actually use, threw some spyware protection on it and then installed AOL. When I configure new computers for my clients in the office, I install a myriad software applications and test a bunch of stuff.
On Dad’s computer, there’s only one thing that needs to work, and that’s AOL. More specifically, Slingo. If AOL ever decides to trash the game, I don’t want to be in the country. I want to be somewhere that Dad can’t reach me because it’s going to be a sad, depressing day. Remember, he’s working on cracking the Top 100. Please AOL, if you do anything right in this world, do not get rid of Slingo or I’ll have to kill myself or at least move away and get a new identity.
I delivered Dad’s new computer on a Friday after work, when I’m most exhausted and have already dealt with every confounding computer problem possible during the work week. I called my husband to say I was setting up Dad’s new PC that night and he said “Don’t do it. You know how you feel by Friday afternoon.” I knew I shouldn’t go, but I also didn’t want to spend all day Saturday doing it. I needed to get it out of the way right then. So I loaded up the car and off I went.
I was really fun setting up the new PC with its monster 22” flat panel screen, which made Dad drool. Again, I plugged everything in, cleared away all the old equipment and then loaded it in my car to cart away. Then we stood back, marveling at this amazing, rockin’ fast system that would surely play better music than the one before. Or so I thought.
First things first. We launch AOL and make sure that Slingo works, because we just bought him basically a thousand dollar video game. Up next, we check out the Internet radio stations he’s got linked in his Favorites folder. Within minutes a song that’s playing skips a beat. And so did my heart.
“Dad, you NEED broadband to make songs play smoothly. I told you it was the speed of your connection that was the
problem, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did. So how to I get broadband access? What is it anyway?”
“Oh my God, Dad. It’s how fast the connection brings data down to your PC, how fast data moves out. We’ve been through this before.”
“Ok, so can you work on that next?”
For the time being, he’s happily surfing and playing his Slingo, while Mom’s on the couch reading her book, having never gotten interested in the computer, even since the first one. She doesn’t have to be entertained by bells and whistles and games and surfing. Give her a good book and she’s content. She probably reads two books a week, and we think she might have actually read all the books in the small library in Wilson Borough. She’s working on all the holdings of the Easton Public Library now. We don’t know what’s going to happen when she finishes all those. Does the New York Public Library deliver?
Then Dad says something that makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. He wants an iPod next so he can listen to his music while he goes on his daily walks with Mom. “Hey! I don’t even have an iPod!” I also don’t feel like being tech support for that, which means my sister Ann is designated as the iPod support person because I know she has one. I inform her of this that night and I get a feeling she thinks he’s joking, but the very next day, he went straight out and bought one. “Ann, Dad’s got you on speed dial. Be ready.”
So she gets the call for help the very next morning. She decides that she’s going to try and squeeze in the visit before going to a picnic at a friend’s house. I told her “Ann, you’re a nurse. You save people’s lives every day. But this is tech support. It’s much, much harder. You need to know that it’s probably not going to go well. Nothing is ever as easy as you think. Problems always crop up and they’re never resolved in the time you think you can get them resolved. You need software and have to install the device. It might go all right, but it probably won’t, so gear up for that. And did you forget, it’s Dad you’re dealing with?”
I tell her that she’ll have to install iTunes, the software that the device uses to download music. “Do you have the installation CD?” “I don’t know,” she says, “but mine came with one so he must have one, too.” I tell her “Well you’re screwed if he doesn’t have it because then you’ll have to download the software from the Internet and you can’t do that over Dad’s slow dial-up connection. The file is monstrously big.” She completely ignores every single one of my warnings and goes anyway.
One hour later, I get the emergency call while I’m trying to take a nap. “Kathy! He doesn’t have the installation CD and I’m trying to download the software and it’s taking forever and it’s really big and it’s only at 5% complete and that took 20 minutes and Dad’s hovering over me and I don’t know what to do!” “Oh my God, Ann, didn’t I say you couldn’t download it over the Internet and that the file was huge? Does NO ONE ever listen to me?!?!?!”
One thing that being the tech support person for your 82-year-old, legally blind father makes you is sympathetic to anyone else who has to deal with his computer problems. So I make an offer she can’t refuse. I offer to go with her the next day to setup the iPod. We synchronize our watches. We’ll meet at 5:00PM.
The next day, I make sure to eat a good protein-rich meal. I know that I’ll have a brutal, exhausting, stressful time of things in what we now call The Dad Zone, and like a professional marathoner training for a triathlon, I will have to be well-fed, well-rested and well-prepared.
Before heading down to The Zone, I first stop at Ann’s house to download the iTunes software onto a borrowed flash drive, a device that can hold a ton of files and makes copying and moving data very easy. Or so I thought. Ann doesn’t have a flash drive of her own, and I don’t feel like driving to campus to get mine. So I suggest she borrow one from her neighbor who works in the computing industry. Unfortunately, he’s not home, so she calls another neighbor and borrows his drive.
She gives it to me and I insert it into her computer so we can download the software over her high-speed internet connection. I grab iTunes, and some other stuff I forgot to install on Dad’s PC on the first go-around. When I go to pull the drive out, after safely telling Windows I was about to do so, the drive won’t give. It’s stuck in the port! I know that God hates me now. For everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I do manage to pull the drive out by its metal end, which has unbelievably separated from its plastic casing.
“Ann, this NEVER happens! I’ve used a hundred flash drives and this NEVER happens. God hates me.” I tell her that taking a faulty drive down to Dad’s is just asking for trouble and we debate whether to run over to a nearby Staples and buy a new one. I don’t feel like dealing with traffic over by Northampton Crossings because I’m stressed already and I might run over people who look like they’re having any kind of fun whatsoever. After chewing this over for ten minutes, we ultimately decide to chance it and go anyway with the flash drive from hell.
We pull into Mom and Dad’s apartment parking lot and take a deep breath. From my past experience in The Zone, there is no doubt that this is what will happen next:
- Mom and Dad will NOT have the air conditioner on and it’ll be a sauna in their apartment.
- Dad will have the TV on and blasting and will be asked to turn it off so we can think straight.
- Dad will hover over each of us in front of the computer and ask a question after every click we make. “What are you doing now? What’s that? Are you done yet?”
- Dad will throw in some bonus questions about things completely unrelated to the task at hand and we’ll have to say “Later, Dad. We mean it.”
- Dad will get a time-out. “Dad, just sit there in the corner and don’t say anything until we’re finished.”
- Mom will be reading a book quietly on the couch.
What didn’t help matters is that Ann brought her 10-year-old daughter Regan along because she has a clarinet lesson in an hour and it’s close to Mom and Dad’s apartment. Ann thinks we’ll finish up quickly and she’ll be able to get her daughter to her lesson in time. But I know different. She’ll have to leave midway through our session because – all together now – THINGS WILL GO WRONG.
And they do. In spades. I insert the faulty flash drive and up comes an obnoxious warning that the drive I’ve just inserted appears to be corrupted and files might not open or be able to copy properly. Should have gone to Staples for a new drive! Curses! We have not started our work yet and I’m already being screamed at by Windows that I’m, indeed, an idiot. I pray very hard to the tech gods that at least the iTunes installation file will be displayed on the drive and that I’ll be able to run it. Mercifully, it does. We’re making progress now. Or so I think.
We get iTunes installed successfully, but that’s only half the battle. You now have to attach the iPod to a USB port and let Windows detect it and install it. Then you can use the software with it to begin downloading songs. This much went OK until we attempted to load the iTunes Store, where you can search for songs you want to download. The stupid store would not open and no thanks to the iTunes people, you don’t get any meaningful error to help you figure out the problem.
At the same time, Dad’s hovering around us and for some inexplicable reason, reaches for the iPod cable that’s connected to the PC. We both scream very loud, and in unison, “Don’t touch that!!!!” To which Dad replies, “OK, OK! Just looking.” “No, Dad, you were just touching. You were touching. Now go sit down over there with Mom.”
So at this stage, we’re in a holding pattern until we can figure out the problem. We’re staring at the screen, clicking randomly and desperately trying to get something working, the whole time wondering how it’d be possible for Dad to climb out of a mess like this himself if we weren’t there to help. The feeling of doom was palpable. Meanwhile, I’m cursing my niece because she’s been text messaging her thousand and twelve friends on her cell phone that Ann just bought her the day before.
It now occurs to Ann that it’s about time for Regan’s clarinet lesson and I’m laughing to myself because I just KNEW we wouldn’t be nearly finished like she thought. So she decided to drop everything and run her to her lesson, while leaving me behind to figure out the most recent complication. While they were gone, I Googled the problem a little more and realized it had something to do with the firewall setting for iTunes. The tech gods have thrown me a bone. I managed to open the firewall for just that software and then I was able to search for songs.
Ann returns a short time later and I silently bless her for even returning. I imagined how she felt coming back to The Zone, sort of like Dead Man Walking. But she got me into this. If she hadn’t come back, I was going to have to find her. She’s pleased to learn I’ve resolved the store problem and now we can search for songs to buy and transfer to the iPod. Since we both know what genre of music he’s going to target first, we start scrolling around looking for it. We glare at each other when we simultaneously realize that polka is nowhere on the list. This is not necessarily a surprise, as there are only sixty eight people in the country who enjoy it and two of them are sitting behind us.
We inform Dad of this bad news, but gently remind him he can always transfer his polka CD collection to the iPod later, but for now he should pick something else. “OK, so what do you want to download first?” There are about a dozen songs that make my ears bleed when I hear them. They stick in my head for days on end and I curse the musicians who recorded them, more so if they were actually popular and made a lot of money. One of those songs is Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. This is the song he wanted to get because God hates me.
Ann very quickly searched for and found the song. She played a sample so Dad could actually confirm this was the exact version he wanted because he pretty much hates live recordings of his favorite songs. Whatever. The song gets his blessing and Ann begins the download. On a high-speed internet connection, downloading an iTunes song takes less than a minute. On Dad’s dial-up connection, however, it took fifteen. While we’re waiting, I’m getting increasingly sweaty and hot under the collar, literally, so I put on the A/C to keep me from melting while Mom’s on the couch reading and now freezing in her double cotton knit robe in the middle of July.
Dad knows we’re irritated, so he makes an attempt to relax the both of us by offering us food. What would have really helped was ice cream, cake or pie. What he gave us was peaches. A “peach offering,” it was. There’d be no reason to have junk food in the apartment, as Mom is diabetic. So we can’t fault them for not having something better to tide us over. It was a gesture that’d been offered once before in my memory, my wedding day. I’d received a bad hair styling that morning and was freaking out in the bathroom trying to fix it. Picture Bridezilla of the highest magnitude.
Mom was the only person in the house who was allowed to interrupt the madness and try to make things right. What she did was bring me some food to settle me and try and calm me down. What she handed me was a snack I always used to have as a kid. Little pieces of torn up French bread with tiny pats of butter on them. I’ll never forget that. I was blubbering about my hair and eating my snack prepared with love, and things turned out OK in the end.
But back to tech support hell. The song finally finished downloading and what’s supposed to happen now is the song should automatically synchronize with the iPod. And, of course, it didn’t. By now, Ann is dying a slow death and she let a curse word slip. We do not curse in our family. But she let it fly and nobody blinked. This was some serious business and cursing was not only allowed, it was encouraged and celebrated, if for no other reason than it kept her from punching Dad square in the face for buying an iPod.
At some point, Ann picked up the iPod to turn it on and see if the device itself showed any errors. She couldn’t tell. And why couldn’t she tell? Well, of course! The menus were in Chinese! This new wrinkle just about made our heads explode. We were already wondering how Dad was going to scroll through the menu of songs (assuming we could get more than Margaritaville on it) on such a tiny screen, being legally blind and everything. Now we had to wonder if he’d have to learn Chinese. Luckily, a quick Google search later, we discovered how to reset the device to English language. This was the only thing that went right thus far.
I determined at this point that I’d had enough for the night. I looked Ann straight in the eyes and it killed me to see her expression. It said “Don’t you even think of leaving.” But I just couldn’t stand one more minute of this odyssey, knowing of course that I’d probably be back the next day to fix things up. “Ann, I’ve GOT to leave right now.” Deep down she understood and reluctantly allowed me to leave so I could save myself. I felt like I was leaving her to lions who hadn’t been fed for a while.
Just so I wouldn’t get to slip out unscathed, Dad asked me one more question. “I’ve been trying to play my polkas from that one website run by the high school in Ohio (that’s gotta be some high school!). And it won’t play because I don’t have Real Player.” Again, because God hates me, the broadcast station requires the use of Real Player and of course I forgot to install it, and of course the file is too big to download over dial-up, and of course now I have to figure that out, too. “I’ll download it to a flash drive and bring it tomorrow. That’s it. I’m leaving.”
The drive home was a blur. I didn’t realize, while I was both laughing and screaming to myself, that I was doing 85mph. If a cop had pulled me over, I think I could have gotten away without a ticket by simply explaining that I’d just tried unsuccessfully to configure software that doesn’t work for my elderly, impatient father and I have to go back tomorrow, and please officer, have mercy on me.
When I got home, I waited an hour before calling Ann at her house to see how things went after I’d left. There was no answer and I said to my husband, “My God, she must still be in The Zone!” We both bowed our heads and said a small prayer that she’d get out alive. About a half hour later, I checked my email and there was a message from her, which read:
Could you just scream????!!!!!!! I was unable to download his purchased song to the iPod. I believe it may be a “filter” thing again. I came back with Regan and tried for 20 minutes. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I went to the gym, AND SOMEONE ELSE WAS ON MY MACHINE!!!!!!!! That never ever happened before. I was so mad that I just freakin’ left. Now I’m eating a whole box of Wheat Thins and searching FAQs regarding the download. He’s never gonna be able to do it on his own even if this latest problem is fixed. There are too many steps.
Anyway, thanks for letting me vent. And thanks for coming with me.
While I was happy she made it home after suffering this harrowing experience, I still felt ill thinking and knowing that I had to go back down there in the morning to install Real Player. What’s worse is that I didn’t have my own flash drive at home, couldn’t borrow the stupid faulty one because Ann still had it, and now had to shell out thirty bucks for a device I’d probably use only once.
The next day I went to Wal-mart for a flash drive because doesn’t Wal-mart sell everything? I must have walked around the electronics aisle for 15 minutes before realizing that Wal-mart does not actually sell everything. There wasn’t one flash drive in the whole place, so I stormed off to Staples on the other side of town, pedal to the metal.
Luckily they had one and I brought it back to my house where I could download Real Player and then drive down to The Zone again and hopefully put an end to this entire mess. While at home, Ann emailed me again to say that the answer to the iPod not syncing came to her in a dream. She remembered seeing this problem before, related to licensing and that she just had to click on some kind of authorization link in the software. I told her I’d let Dad know about this new development when I got back down there.
As soon as I arrive in The Zone, Dad begins complaining that the devil in the Slingo game is appearing more often than before and stealing all his hard-earned points. I laugh to myself that it’s impossible for a game to be out to get him and begin to wonder if having played 300,000 games has perhaps damaged the part of his brain where reason and rationality are supposed to be. I tell him “Dad, you’re losing it. It’s not a conspiracy,” and turn to my mother who is of course reading a book on the couch and say “Or is it???” She looks up briefly and we both share a little giggle.
Getting that nonsense out of the way, I install and test Real Player with the high school polka broadcast. It boggles my mind that somewhere in the middle of the country, some pimply high school kids are manning a two bit radio station that plays polka of all things, instead of sitting at home in front of their own computers playing the latest video game, like all good kids should be doing on their summer vacations. He’s got the station cranked up and thing are moving along just swell. I explain to Dad that Ann finally figured out the iPod situation and would come back over later to deal with it.
Later that same day, Ann did go back and got the iPod to finally sync stupid Margaritaville. She quickly realized that with all the problems that we had getting Dad to see where to search for songs and how he’d have to scroll all over the iTunes Store, and how slow it’d be to download songs, a major decision had to be made. Ann offered to do the downloading for him on her own PC, over a high-speed connection. She said if he made a list of songs for her and brought over his iPod, she’d take care of it. Dad knew that you could also transfer songs from CDs he already owned.
She told him to just come over one day with the CDs he wanted put on the device. Doesn’t he show up at 6:45AM the next morning carrying a shopping bag full of all his music. An hour later and still bleary-eyed, Ann sent him off with his iPod packed with a few hundred songs and then promptly went back to bed. For now, he’s satisfied.
The saga isn’t over yet, and I know it never will be since new technologies come out every other week and apparently Dad now wants all the latest stuff. He’s since expressed interest in an iPhone, because thanks to the marketing department at Apple Inc., evidently we all need one.
Plus I still have to arrange for him to get broadband access in the apartment to fix the song-playing issue once and for all. Some of his CDs with burned pictures on them still won’t display properly on the computer, so that’s on my to-do list as well. There’s also some accessibility software I have to figure out that reads web page content aloud, and he likes that, except the default voices you get sound like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You have to pay extra for voices that sound human. It’s always something. Maybe we should have gotten them that mass spectrometer after all.
Despite our ongoing nightmare, there is one undeniable fact: My Dad may be the world’s biggest tech support challenge, but he’s the only octogenarian in his senior apartment complex who has a computer and is not afraid to use it, and I say that’s pretty cool.