Launching a computer

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.

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.

One Christmas the prodigal son returned. He enrolled in a super-tough computer school, bought a gray suit, accessed a striped tie, went to a barber, and over dinner talked COBOL, FOR-TRAN and BASIC while I tried to look interested.

But he was suddenly a delight to have around. And although he was the only one in his computer class not to have finished college, he was first to be hired. Somehow he had learned to follow directions. And to master computers.

I couldn't have cared less about computers and was leery of that new term ``word processing.'' How do you process a word? But I was concerned about speeding up my literary output. There is so much to write, and retyping a manuscript over each time one rewrites is a drag. One of my editors called me ``the Snow-Pake queen'' because of all the White-Out enameled over my corrections.

Then my stepmother gave me a Christmas check, which I spent on a brief course in word processing at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. I proved I could do it. Of course, at the Writer's Center the staff deals with formating and programming, and turning the machines on. One just writes, as on a typewriter, pushes a few extra buttons to erase or move copy, and miraculously, the printer prints.

But the brand I bought was different. I must learn all over again. In my tiny study at home, surrounded by scribbled manuscripts, impatient to produce literature or anything at all, I leaf through the manuals.

``Just follow directions''. . . .

Desperation mounts, my head whirls, my temper at technology balloons.

Finally I swallow irritation and pride and phone the expert.

``How can you stand this messy study?'' Kirk asks, sliding into the rickety chair.

More accustomed to maxicomputers, he must first check the manuals. He agrees the directions are badly written. But he makes enough sense of them to translate into simple commands on a few index cards we tape to the study walls. With amazing patience, he teaches me the tricks of the trade.

It takes a fortnight, and precious stories disappear from the screen in a thunderstorm, poems print out in unknown languages because I've forgotten to adjust some lever. Gradually I become automatic. Whenever I hit a snag, I figure it out, or at least a way around it. But Kirk is still willing to drive over and rescue me.

Now I've learned to format disks while reading the morning paper or jotting down the first lines of whatever. I can write up a storm, print out poems and stories, blue-pencil the typed pages until they resemble palimpsests, flash the original work back on the screen, erase and insert and realign, transform poem or story into a chapter, print out again, correct and reprint and send everything off in several directions. My output has tripled.

Moreover, I've trained a dozen other people to use my computer.

Only trouble is, now well into the night they all line up for time on it: friends writing novels, students writing poems, my daughter and her friends with long reports, the boys home from college with overdue term papers, interns helping with publishing ventures in exchange for a chance to learn word processing, even Kirk, who wants his new r'esum'e to look professional.

I am back to writing with a pencil and lined pad in my lap.

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