Way back in one of the early eras of personal computing — not the Paleozoic; maybe the Mesozoic Era: 1999 — I presented a seminar to members of my neighborhood association that I called Everything You Wanted to Know About the Internet (But Were Afraid to Ask.) (The reference to Dr. Reuben’s sex manual of the ’60s was probably lost on them.) I was just setting up my business, “The Old School — friendly, personal-computer training for kids over 40,” and I figured it would be good P.R. and a way to acquire clients.
The mean age of the association’s members was about 65, so I didn’t expect a huge turnout but I planned a two-hour session anyway. I figured if anyone got too bored or confused, they could leave at any time.
I wasn’t prepared for the response. Having booked a small room nearby that comfortably held 25 people, I quickly had to regroup after the 120th caller who wanted to reserve a seat. The solution was to split the seminar into three sessions and spread out the audience over three rather tightly packed meetings.
After each session — I’m pleased to say no one left early — I had a chance to chat with them, and one couple really charmed me. Paul was a writer who worked for Publishers Weekly and who was fairly accomplished, having written several mystery novels. He was quite comfortable with his computer. Ruth, his wife, was a literary agent and completely new to computers.
She signed up for lessons on the spot. Her pure white hair framed a still-graceful face that was so full of life, and her eyes glistened with such enthusiasm as we chatted about ways to help streamline her office that I was eager to begin teaching her. In stark contrast to her appearance, her deep, gruff and raspy voice almost hypnotized me as we planned how and when to begin her training.
On the starting date I went to her office and found her sitting behind a brand new jelly-blue first-generation iMac. Rounded, globular and largely see-through, it nearly overtook her small desk in a way that said “I’m the most important thing in this room!” an odd proclamation from something that Ruth hadn’t even turned on. I was relieved, after looking around a bit, to see a typewriter on the return of her desk: it meant at least she was familiar with the keyboard layout.
I had an enormous amount of fun working through all the exasperating moments with her: she was quick to laugh at her own fumbling knowledge. For example, on more than one occasion she grabbed the mouse the wrong way, with the cord facing toward her — those iMac mice were completely round: probably the worst design ever — and she wondered aloud and gruffly why, when she moved the mouse UP the screen cursor went DOWN.
That was another thing: the cursor. After many tries at maneuvering it with faltering success, she grumbled, “I can see why you call it a cursor. I can think of several curse words to use.”
Then there was the rest of the terminology. “Double-click on that icon.” I said.
“What? What is ‘double-click’? Is that a word? For that matter, you said ‘icon’? I don’t see any Russian Saints.” Another laugh.
One time she called me on the phone in an excited state, saying her husband thought she should have a web site to promote her literary agency. “Do you agree?” she asked. I thought it was a good idea and told her we could put it on the agenda.
I had to take a beat to keep from laughing before answering, when next she asked, “Now, what exactly is a web site?”
I won’t say she got terribly proficient, but she did learn the basics of word processing and was able to retire her old, clunky typewriter. She also got a good grasp on searching the Internet for information about books and authors, she got her Amazon account set up and she quickly picked up the benefits of, and her way around, e-mail.
She even learned to keep the mouse “tail,” as she called the cord, running up and away from her hand rather than along her wrist, thereby preventing an errant cursor.
And she never lost her enthusiasm, even having had to wade into this entirely new territory.
As time went on, she cursed less and less, as she cursored more and more.
Having learned as much as she needed to, and graciously, gratefully giving me leave, she called off her lessons. I saw her only occasionally in the neighborhood after that, sometimes with her husband, Paul, but often by herself. Those were always warm, friendly mini-reunions that brightened my day.
Then one time I saw them from across the avenue, and noticed she was walking with difficulty, severely bent over and holding Paul’s arm tightly. Shortly afterward I learned she had died after a brief battle with a rapidly advancing cancer.
It was one of the hazards of working with “people of a certain age” that I never knew when I would lose a client. No longer a client at that point, Ruth had become a friend, as much a mentor to me as I to her, and I was saddened to learn she had died.
My life was enriched by the times I got to spend with her, and I still hear her gruff voice lashing out — nearly cursing, but not quite — at her misbehaving mouse.