6I From Opera to Fine Art Calendars

January 12, 2008


When I met my father’s sister Aunt Henriette again (after many years of not seeing her or communicating with her) at our two family reunions arranged by Aunt Naomi and Uncle-in-law Donald with money provided by my poor doomed cousin Joana who had gone to Taiwan to learn Chinese and had become a millionaire as co-owner (with her Taiwanese husband Kenny) of the baby furniture/stroller company Graco, I discovered that Henriette had

  • gone back to New York City with her baby son Carl and reconciled with her husband Morton whom nobody else in my family could stand (though at the one time I met Morton in person I had gotten along with him well enough though I could see that longer time in his presence would have wearied me rapidly)
  • given up her dream of being an opera singer for the Metropolitan Opera
  • received a computer paid for by Uncle Donald and started to teach herself how to use it
  • her son Carl had grown up into an unhappy and alienated nerdy-geeky young adult (much like my youngest brother J)
  • come to the conclusion (after learning that I teach computer classes for a living) that I understand everything there is to understand about computers and can solve any computer problem there is (over the phone, like your own personal technical support line, except much better than ones in India)

Besides her love of opera, Henriette has a love of fine art. I suspect she spent many hours at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other fine museums of New York City.

Henriette began to use her computer to explore the Internet. As with most people who teach themselves to use a computer and the Internet, she learned just enough to be dangerous.

Soon I began to receive telephone calls from Henriette. Although Henriette and Morton did not have much money, they had enough money to get a cable connection that allowed her to surf the Internet and to make unlimited phone calls. As Henriette had worked as a waitress and Morton had not worked much (if at all), I wasn’t sure what they lived on. My guess (with some supporting evidence) is that after Joana died tragically of breast cancer, her parents, Donald and Naomi, inherited some money, and they in turn provided some financial support to Henriette and Morton.

Henriette began to download reproductions of fine paintings from web sites and using a program called Microsoft Publisher began to assemble calendars. Publisher is a perfect program for the person who knows just enough about computers to be dangerous as it multiplies their ability to get themselves into confusion and trouble by a thousand-fold. It is like taking a child with a chemistry set and saying, Here is a little kit to help you learn to do fun things with plastic explosives.

I began to get phone calls from Henriette. “Random, this is your Aunt Henriette. I am having a little trouble with my computer… I am trying to create this calendar, but …”

Sometimes, she had a question or problem to which I knew the answer. This encouraged her belief that I knew all answers to all computer problems and could solve them with a few words over the phone.

Sometimes, I did not know the answer. Sometimes I knew answers, but could not communicate them over the phone to her. For example, she created Publisher files that were hundreds of Megabytes in size and then tried to email them to friends all over the world.

This inspired conversations about attachments and uploads to ftp sites and whispered comments by my wife to stop banging my head against the wall as she didn’t want the wall damaged any more.

On another occasion she told me, “I turned on my computer but it didn’t come one.” She then waited expectantly for my answer telling her which switch to push to make the computer come on.

On this occasion, the wall was so damaged my wife and I had a new house built in the woods and fled to it, but we attached a phone to the new wall. How dumb can I get?


6 Responses to “6I From Opera to Fine Art Calendars”

  1. Importunate relatives make the world go ’round. I am well-known in my family for never answering the phone. This saves a lot of wear and tear on my walls, which is necessary, as I have never become intimate with the ins and outs of sheetrock.

  2. modestypress Says:

    The tangled web of my family defies description short of an 800 page novel.

    I bought Henriette a computer and printer from Staples. I worked with Hasan from Bangladesh who works at Staples in New York City. I actually ordered the computer from someone named Hossan (country of origin unknown) who works for Staples in Seattle. Dealing with Staples is not, most of the time, easy. When Edwards loses the Democratic nomination to Clinton or Obama, maybe I can get him to handle my class-action suit against Staples.

    My brother started a wiki for my family to communicate about what to do for Henriette. Nobody is using it.

    My sister called Henriette and told her to stop pestering Random. Except for one phone call, she has stopped calling me.

    One of my cousins invited Henriette to Thanksgiving dinner. My understanding is that it went well.

    (This is one very dull page out of an even duller 800-page novel, some of which I will write in my blog.)

  3. elissakaren Says:

    I know just what you’re going through! I always say that having an I.T. guy as a husband rivals the luxury of having a doctor in the family. I exploit him on an ongoing basis, which is my marital due. But sooner or later, wherever we go, he is corralled into addressing all the computer issues of extended family and friends as well. He is called at all hours of the day and evening to talk people through the 89 steps needed to accomplish some complex maneuver they have no idea how to begin. There’s really nothing for it, other than — as you say — to take the phone off the hook (to borrow an antiquated notion, dating back to the time when phones actually had hooks).

  4. modestypress Says:

    I appreciate your appreciation. The odd part of this is that I am not an IT person. I am a training person. That is what I’ve studied and practiced for the last twenty years.

    It is amazing how people cannot relate to how working with computers is just like working with anything else. I was teaching a class today, and there was the usual expectation (from a pleasant group of people all of who I’ve worked with before) that there is some simple answer to complicated questions.

    I asked them about what they had done. (They are all retired.)

    Jack (in his 80s): “Last job, I worked for a University, kind of a combination of electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.” (Fixing things I think rather than teaching.)

    Cindy (nice British woman in her 50s): “I was a doctor. Family practice.”

    Suzette in her 60s had worked a fairly simple job but turned out she was quite an expert on horses.

    I pointed out to them if somebody asked them about a challenging problem in their field, they would not have had a five minute explanation or fix.

    I think they got it.

  5. Pete Says:

    Also been there, and I can relate. I just started telling people I don’t know the answer, and I do different kinds of things to computers. Except for my parents, who are by far the worst (They are 81) I love them too much to say no. Plus it is always the dumbest things with them (Like haveing the same copy of a spreadsheet open 9 or 10 times at once and wondering why they are out of memory!) Good help is hard to come by, especially for free!

  6. modestypress Says:

    Yesterday, in a later class for that day, eightyplus-year-old Jack, who is one of the nicest people in the world, and who at 60 was probably ten times smarter than I am, and is still very sharp, but slowing down a lot, pulled out a USB flash drive and showed it to me and said, “I can’t get it to work on my computer. It does have the right kind of plug.”

    I asked, “What version of Windows do you have?”

    He said, “98.”

    I said, “You probably can get it to work, but I am not sure of the details right off the top of my head, and I am not going to try and solve it for you.”

    We talked it over amiably for a bit, and eventually Jack accepted mournfully that I am not going to solve his problem for him, and it’s probably a relatively easy one to solve. Maybe I’ll tell him to call Pete.

    Over on David’s blog, I have been starting a list of various business cards to keep on hand to hand out to people on real life situations that come up out of the blue (or the green or the red or the black or the yellow or whatever).

    Here’s another:

    No, I can’t help you.

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