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Launching a computer

By Elisavietta Ritchie / April 24, 1986

JUST read the directions,'' waved the computer installer. He had delivered two cartons to my house, unshackled computer and typewriter-printer from Styrofoam casing, connected one to another with a multi- colored interwoven plastic umbilical cord, jammed two regular rubberized cords into three-pronged plugs, thrust them into different wall sockets, and turned the switches on to prove the machines worked and the fuses wouldn't blow.

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Then he had turned the switches off and departed, leaving me with six two-inch-thick individually boxed ring binders full of diagrams and directions.

Here we sit, computer and I, in my tiny study that barely used to hold a crib and a baby. That particular baby, whose name is Kirk, now stands 6 foot 4 and has moved to larger quarters.

This computer is more compact, sitting 1 foot by 1, studying me with its blank black screen.

I need to turn on the machines. In the computer store it was easy. The salesman flipped a switch, slipped in a disk, and green letters and numbers danced onto the screen. What else he demonstrated was more relevant to launching a missile, shooting a star, or checking inventory for General Motors than writing even a haiku.

I switch on the printer, which off-duty is also a typewriter. One red light blinks on, but immediately the machine starts up a galloping rhythm printing ggggg. I turn it off quickly.

I reach around behind the computer and flip a switch. I try the printer again. It sits silently, red-eyed, waiting.

Careful not to touch the vulnerable sections, I pick up a disk. The disk fits into its slot. Nothing happens.

Guilt at having spent so much money floods over me. To buy the computer, I went into debt. First time in my life.

I justified the investment by rationalizing that everyone else in our extended household would find it useful. ``But we'll never need it,'' they insisted. ``I hate machines.'' ``I've no time for computers.'' ``There are mainframes at work.'' ``I have a desk-top model with a brain the size of a planet.'' ``Buy it for yourself.''

So I did. The six thick manuals were included in the Super Special Price. Printer ribbons and packages of disks were Very Extra.

Disks need formating. The salesman told me something about that. ``Just read the directions'' echoes in my ears. I open one after another of the thick ring binders. The directions are unreadable, the diagrams undecipherable.

I think of long-ago Christmas Eves when we sat up trying to piece together foreign bicycles with which to surprise Kirk on Christmas morning when he awoke -- seldom later than 3 a.m. Alien sections of bicycle would lie scattered across the living room while we tried to decode instructions inscrutably translated from Japanese, Czech, German, Chinese.

A wonder Kirk ever had a new bicycle to grow up on. Also a wonder he ever got through school. Test after test would come back with the teacher's tidy red ink: ``Next time, follow directions.'' ``When will you learn to read the instructions first?'' ``How will you ever get through school if you don't read how . . . ?''

Kirk squeaked through several schools, going his own directions. He was not about to be taught much of anything by anyone. He prided himself on the most ragged Army-surplus clothes and wildest hair in the neighborhood. His garret was a pigpen. Et cetera. We were not sure any of us would survive his adolescence. After a couple of semesters away at college, he came home briefly, painted the walls, flew off to Malaysia, settled in San Francisco at various blue-collar jobs, lived off filet mignon one week, rice the next, called home seldom, never asked for help or advice.