… With My New Computer

“Mother, it’s time for you to join the 21st century.” This is what my son has been saying for twelve or thirteen years. He said it again a day or two ago. I’ve heard him every time. Gee whizzly—I know it’s a new century. Didn’t I work on a Y2K project?

The Y2K project happened when I was still doing temp work in 1998-99. Sixteen temps were hired by a large company (I think it made auto parts) to make email and phone queries to suppliers around the world: were the suppliers’ computers going to crash or explode when the clock ticked into 2000? (Just so you know: the new century/millennium actually began in 2001. The 2000 is the 10 in the sequence of 1-10. The new sequence starts with 11, or 2001. Got that?) The large company liked me because the last time I took a typing test I scored 65 words per minute (one of the other temps typed about 15 wpm) and I knew how to say please and thank you during the phone calls. As we temps worked through the long list of suppliers, some temps were let go. At the end of the Y2K project only a computer geek named Andy and I remained. Andy was really smart. He knew so much about computers, we teasingly asked if he was a silicon-based being in disguise as a humble computer tech. It was while I was working on the Y2K project that I started writing Finding New Goddesses. Which explains why my Found Computer Goddesses are so old-fashioned. I need to Find goddesses for cellphones and tablets and all these other new thingies that kids learn about when they’re two years old. (Or do they start younger?) I’m wondering if a Found Goddess of Social Media might be Viralicious. No, now I’m thinking Virabella.

The Y2K project had computer adventures that I still remember. Like when one of the temps downloaded an .exe file and sixteen computers promptly crashed. Or when the official tech guy switched servers without testing the new one first or telling us. Sixteen computers crashed again. Or when one guy was fired because he was watching “foot porn” (I’m trying to imagine what that is) instead of researching suppliers in South Korea and China. No computer crash, but a lot of joking.

The first computer I ever saw was in 1967 at Southeast Missouri State University, where I had just begun the coursework for my M.A. and was supporting myself as a secretary to five educational psychologists (two of whom are my friends to this day). No, I didn’t type on a computer. I sat at an IBM Selectric. And took shorthand. The old-fashioned way, in a steno notebook. The computer was a mainframe that filled an entire room with an elevated floor and special air conditioning. I don’t know what the university used the computer for because during enrollment, we still stood in long lines with papers in our hands. I also remember seeing other secretaries doing mysterious things with punched Hollerith cards. They also painted them red and green and stapled them together to make Christmas wreaths.

I also remember seeing the word processors (the talented women, not the software) using ice picks to sort Hollerith cards and poking tape cassettes into the computers sitting beside their workstations at some of the office jobs I had during the 80s and 90s. Also during the 80s I got a job at a minicomputer manufacturer. “It’s better than daytime TV,” the tech pubs manager told me during our interview. (You may be asking why I was doing work like this after earning a Ph.D. in English. The answer is that there were no jobs of newly-hatched Ph.D.’s in 1976. The English department that graduated me had one opening. And 1,200 applications to fill it. There were only a dozen openings for medievalists in the whole country. So I did a bunch of interviews, didn’t land in a university, and moved to California to live with a friend whose two sons were about the same age as my son. Then I got my first job as a technical writer.)

Does anybody remember what a minicomputer was? In my memory, it was about the size of my new Asus computer and looked somewhat like a really big typewriter. We tech writers didn’t get to use any kind of computer. We had old typewriters or wrote by hand on legal pads. Our work went to the word processors, who typed it up. While I was at that company, they bought an NBI word processing system. It was vaguely like a very early version of WordPerfect. I learned to use it, and when the head word processor quit, I got to be head of the word processing group—two women nearing retirement age and one over-eager girl who flirted with the department chair. As you probably know, demand for minicomputers went nowhere. We had almost no work to do, so I started doing my own writing at work. I was fired for stealing the company’s electrons (!) by a manager who was younger than I was, held only an M.S., and who probably weighed less than I did. About two years later, I heard that the two remaining tech writers had been laid off, two more word processors had quit, and the whole tech pubs department consisted of one word processor. Then the company’s board fired the company’s founder (whose main occupation seemed to be getting his secretaries pregnant) and moved the company to Texas, where it soon faded into oblivion.

Sometime later I was hired by a tiny company (a highly technical man and his wife, a retired ballerina) to run their office. Their computer’s name was Aurora, and Aurora greeted you with music when you turned her—it on. That job didn’t last very long.

I used Word XP for fifteen-plus years after WordPerfect more or less went away. I wrote my first book on a portable typewriter and wrote my second and third books using WordPerfect 5.0 and 5.1 on a computer a friend gave me when her company upgraded. I bought new computers in 2002 and 2008 but stuck with Word XP after Microsoft stopped supporting it. My new computer came equipped with Word and Excel 2013 (I think). Back in the 90s, I was really good with Excel because every time I was sent to a new temp assignment I went to the temp agency’s office and practiced Excel and PowerPoint. And almost never got to use them. So now I’m having to relearn a bit of Excel to keep track of my spending and earning.

My computer started seriously crashing while I was editing on December 14. Panic! I was able to recover my work. Then, on December 15, it crashed ten times before lunch. Now I was in a total panic, but my regular, long-time tech was on vacation, so I sent emails (using my iPad) to friends and begging for referrals. Kathryn, president of the Long Beach branch of the California Writers Club (I’m the secretary), sent the first of four or five replies and recommended Joey. He and I had a couple long phone conversations and exchanged some emails, after which he did some research on what might be best for me. We met at the local Best Buy on December 18, I bought the computer, and he installed it for me. Then I bought the software I’m using now. Joey has given me a lot of help, like walking me though three new email programs, and explaining a lot of Mysterious Stuff. My friend Eileen, also a writer, has also given me lots of tips and good advice. Is the newer version of Word better? Some of it is, but some so-called features are of no use to me. Is it easier to use? Maybe. A few features are very handy. So, yes, my son, I am tiptoeing into the 21st century. With a little help from my friends.