Finding my inner 14-year-old - by phone

Joan and I had been at a dinner where a woman asked a business professor what to do about a computer problem. "First you ask a 14-year-old," said the professor.

You get the idea. The precomputer generations throw up their hands and call on the youngsters who drank in computing with their mothers' milk.

But when wife Joan has a computer problem, she calls on me, old enough to be her husband. Sometimes, in a teenage frame of mind, I can be of help.

Then the other day her computer would not do for her what "it always did before." My usual therapy (turning the computer off and on again) didn't work.

All the "help" menus on Joan's C drive failed me, or were failed by me. Joan said to my back hunched over her keyboard, "Couldn't you call somebody?"

That's not what the world's oldest living 14-year-old likes to hear when he's sure he can do it himself by following directions a few more times.

What she wanted was to get back the little thingy that she claimed had disappeared from the toolbar of her word processor. She could simply click this on-screen button and the text on her screen would appear in e-mail form. She could send it without switching to her e-mail server. Now she couldn't.

My own machine didn't have this convenience, but I almost admired her expectation that any machine should work perfectly.

I did find Joan's little thingy in a "customize" box, and I did - as "help" said - drag it up the screen to her toolbar. Voilà, there it was. But it went pale and lifeless when the customize box was closed.

I felt I must have omitted some simple click to save the button, though I couldn't find it in "help."

I stretched a point. Trying to do something that Joan wanted, I telephoned the so-called free support line. Her particular word processor was not eligible for free phone support, but I could be transferred to paid phone support for $35. I considered all the fun I'd had without paid phone support and thought it was a bargain on a prorated basis.

Soon I had my own 14-year-old on the line. A fluent friendly voice was repeating my credit-card name with a gently rolling accent that made me think "India" before I knew I had been outsourced.

"Roderick, may I put you on hold for two minutes while I work on the problem?"

Two minutes of background Dixieland, not raga. Did they already have a profile of me?

"Roderick, thank you for being on hold. Please go back to 'Start' and....

"Roderick, what is the operating system?...

"Roderick, what is the e-mail system?"

Joan would have to have a different e-mail system to do what she wanted to do with her operating system.

"But it was working before," I told my new friend. He took this seriously and didn't try to sell me a different system. He guided me through various steps that failed for perhaps half an hour. Then...

"Roderick, may I call you back?"

A few hours later, and the rest is sublimity. He took me places where "help" had given no clue as far as I could tell. He had me change words in spaces that appeared at his instruction.

Voilà, and this was really voilà, the e-mail button was there, and it didn't go pale. It stayed alive and worked.

"Roderick, I'm glad to hear it, but our connection is breaking up." I'd had to use a cellphone to work at Joan's computer. The battery indicator was down to one tiny bar. I barely had time to say thanks.

Joan wished I had asked why her computer became so slow, a fate worse than the missing thingy. Before placing the next call, I will try to be more like my inner 14-year-old and find out everything my client wants to know.

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