Composed as part of Portfolio Development before I began to teach the program.
|Trials and Errors
My hands were visibly shaking as I signed the cheque for $15,000. In my mind, I thought about all the people who likely signed cheques for this and larger amounts on a daily basis. I decided they probably didn’t get the “shakes” over it, and probably didn’t even think about it too much, at least not enough to have an emotional reaction to it.
My eyes scanned the cheque quickly once more to ensure accuracy before handing it to the salesman. I wondered what the women at the credit union would think when that cheque went through my pitiful account.
I had just purchased a Compaq Deskpro 286e personal computer, along with a Hewlett Packard ScanJet II, a flatbed scanner with an automatic document feeder. In addition, I’d bought a Hewlett Packard LaserJet Series II printer, with paper trays in two sizes. The six large boxes with all the smaller peripherals and software, were sitting there waiting for me to pack them into my car for the long trip home.
Traveling to Sheet Harbour from downtown Halifax, was a two-hour trip in the best of times. In traffic, it could expand to almost three hours of noise and frustration.
It was still early in the month of June 1989. The first personal computer was introduced to the general public only eight years earlier. Most people believed only those with a scientific mind could operate a computer with any success. Yet, here I was deigning to delve into the world of electronics and by doing so, allow this marvelous technology to help make my life, simpler . . . somehow.
All the way home I considered the cost of the equipment in my car and thought to myself, “Please, don’t anyone collide with me today. The stuff I’m carrying is worth five times what the car cost me!”
Once I reached home, I carefully carried and stacked the boxes of equipment in my home office and opened a few smaller boxes. One of them was a DOS (direct operating system) Manual for the CPU (computer processing unit). It was a heavy 2-ring binder about 4 inches thick and I began to read it. Overall, the system seemed to make perfect sense to me intellectually, but I thought I might have some problems with the commands, because there seemed to be so many of them.
Since I had never taken any computer courses I thought I had better tread carefully and at least read all the information before I did anything. By the end of June, all the equipment was still packed and stacked and I was still thinking about it.
Finally, one Friday evening my eleven-year-old son came into the house and said, “Mom, today we’re going to hook up that equipment and get you going on it.”
I looked at him in disbelief. He was a good child. A proverbial Mr. Fix-it. He sounded as though he actually knew what he was proposing and he hadn’t even read any of the documentation. He had already begun to open boxes and was busy discarding anything that didn’t look to him as though it might be of value while I was boiling the tea kettle again, to once more ponder the setup and configuration of all this “stuff” I had bought.
By the time I walked back into the office twenty minutes later, he had the computer set up, turned on, and was playing with a program called Paintbrush.
“Look Mom, it’s easy,” he said as he smiled at me knowing full well he had left me in total awe of his ability to not only forge ahead where angels feared to tread, but to do so with speed and agility.
I pulled up a seat next to him and began to watch.
“How’d you know John,” I asked, with a twinkle in my eyes “Where everything went?”
“It’s easy Mom. A child could do it. The wires can only fit in one place. They have it all organized so you can’t really put it together wrong.”
“Moron proof!” I muttered, as I smiled into his excited, fresh face.
I started to look the system over. The monitor was sitting on the CPU and the mouse was on a little soft pad, and the printer was on the right, and the scanner on the left. In the back of the CPU the wires all seemed to fit in particular places, just as he said they did.
“I didn’t bother putting that Automatic Feeder on your scanner,” John explained, “It’s not something you need anyway. Was it expensive?” I looked at the box under the desk, and thought. I just paid $500 for something I might not even need and I’m being told by a kid who’s not even twelve years old yet.
I continued to sip my tea and watched as John made shapes and lines in the Paintbrush program, colored them, erased them, and made them again, and saved them as files.
“You were smart to tell them to load your software. If people are going to mess up, they usually do it when they load the programs.” John shut down Paintbrush, and turned off the machine, then he turned to look at me grinning.
“I’m going to turn this back on . . . no, no I’m going to have you turn this back on and I’ll show you how it works, but you sit here, ok!”
We changed places and I reached for the power button, pressed it and waited. The machine whirred into life, and began to flash a variety of things on the screen too quickly for me to read and process what they actually meant.
“Don’t worry about that Mom,” John said, “That’s just the POST. The computer has to check itself each time to make sure everything it needs to work is where it should be. All you need is the menu. If anything is missing, the computer will tell you.”
The “menu,” it turned out, was indeed a little “menu” with five numbered choices sitting neatly in the center of the monochrome screen.
#2. Ventura Publisher
All I had to do according to John was choose which program I wanted to use, at something called, “the C prompt.”
“All you really need to remember Mom, is to never type: c:/ del c: ..If you do that, nothing will work and you’ll have to get someone to fix it.”
I listened attentively and wondered how he knew all this but since he seemed to be the only one capable of programming the VCR and other electronics throughout the house I grabbed the Manual again and sat at the “dos prompt” reading while John went back outdoors.
I spent the entire weekend at the computer, and took a break here and there to make something to eat or drink. I didn’t sleep very much. Every time I tried to sleep, I’d think of something else one of the books or manuals had said, and want to try it. Overall, I learned that every program had its own manual, and a variety of disks that every book suggested I make copies of, and put them away in a safe place. Every program worked completely different from the other and seemed to be designed to do a very specific and particular job.
By the time Monday morning arrived, I was bleary-eyed and exhausted but the adrenalin level was high and I was thrilled to death with all I had learned so quickly. I wanted to talk about it to someone who knew about computers, and I wanted to keep using it but, I had to go to work. We didn’t have computers at work.
For the most part, discussing what I was doing at home with some of the people I worked with was akin to suddenly talking a foreign language. I received similar blank stares.
If I said, “I bought a scanner.” I could expect the response, “Oh? Planning to listen to the police calls are you?”
If I tried to explain what a scanner could do, their eyes would glaze over and I knew intuitively, I’d lost my listener. Sometimes, they’d back away visibly to escape me.
So, for weeks on end, I’d go home and study my manuals, and experiment little by little. I spent all my weekends that summer engrossed completely in processing information on computers. I needed to know so many things. I needed to know how they worked and why. I needed to know everything they could do, and everything they couldn’t do.
I very quickly learned that they’re merely a tool. A wonderful tool that will only do what you tell it to do. I began to use each program, and explored them until I could produce the things they were designed to produce. The laser printer was wonderful. The scanner was wonderful. The capabilities of this machinery fired my imagination as nothing else had in a long time. It seemed to me that everything it did for me, was another stroke of pure magic.
Then one night, I was printing off an agenda. Once it was in my hand, I reached over and shut the computer off without thinking, instead of backing out of the program properly. I stared at the blank screen. Time froze in my mind while a dozen questions flew through it simultaneously. Had I hurt it? Would it still work? I quickly rebooted.
Nothing. The computer wouldn’t go through it’s “post.” I had killed it? Did I?
I stared at the blank screen in astonishment and felt the inexplicable fear creep through my bloodstream. What had I done? Was it fixable? Had I inadvertently destroyed $15,000's worth of equipment?
I had to go to a meeting and be there in 10 minutes. I dashed out to my car and sat there with my hand frozen on the ignition, as the tears of disappointment leaked out of my eyes, and I sat there and cried. What could I do? No one this far from the city had a computer to my knowledge, and if they did, they wouldn’t know much more about it than I did. I felt torn between the computer that wouldn’t work and the meeting.
I dried my eyes and went to the meeting. I sat through it, with my mind still back home in my office mentally going through every movement, trying to discover what I had done and trying desperately to figure out how to fix it.
A few hours later I was home again and the meeting wasn’t even a memory. I turned on the computer and still nothing. The panic rose in my throat and I felt immediately sick.
I reached for my little address book, and phoned the company that had loaded the software on the machine. It was 10:00 p.m. I didn’t expect anyone to answer the phone, but someone did.
After haltingly explaining who I was, and what had happened I was advised to search for a disk called, “the boot disk” and found it, and rebooted the computer as instructed. As the computer reached out its electronic hand, and grabbed the A drive, I breathed a sign of enormous relief. From there I was instructed to type several other things, and eventually I was editing the configuration system and the automatic execution files and better yet, I understood why.
I was nervous but expectant as I finally completed all the instructions and rebooted once more and watched as the computer once more purred into action and went through its post before flipping up the little batch program that was my familiar menu.
The sight of it made me smile. I looked at the clock. It was 10:20 p.m. I thanked the young man who had walked me through the process, and made notes as he answered several more questions for me. When I hung up the phone, I felt like I had stepped out onto another plateau and that my mind had once more taken a quantum leap of understanding. As the plateau stretched off to the horizon of my mind, I looked forward to another weekend so that I could devote more of my time to the experimentation of learning to use a computer.
By the end of July that summer, I had produced several newsletters; one for the Blue Water Business Development Program and one for Continuing Education, both were distributed throughout the eastern shore.
By the end of the summer, I was producing resumes for my clients. I particularly enjoyed the look on their faces when they saw themselves and their skills represented on paper for the first time, typographically. It felt good to see them feel good.
Now, more than ten years later and on my fifth personal computer and after having digested many manuals on several levels of DOS, Windows 3.1 and so on, up to Windows 95 and 98, with too many programs and their manuals and disks, to recall, I consider myself to be a Computer Troubleshooter of the first order.
I can take them apart physically, and replace hard drives, and CD-ROMs, fans, and cables. I can install software and have a fairly swift learning curve with most of it.
My $15,000 investment allowed me to initiate and publish the longest established monthly newspaper on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. It was distributed to over 12,000 homes and offices and ran for eight years. My son even worked for me for a while developing logos and graphics for advertisements along with other duties.
Years later, when I finally got “the internet” for the first time, it was as though someone handed me the keys to all the great libraries on the planet and said, “Help yourself!” The excitement of first discovery was once again renewed. Not only could I find enormous amounts of information, but I could also do my banking, make purchases, and meet and chat with hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world. Since then, I’ve made many good friends of all ages because of the experience.
I cannot imagine my home without a computer any more than I can imagine my life without a car. I could no doubt live without a car, but it’s invariably easier to get around with one.
Computers are similar. They’re merely another appliance to help us do the things we wish to do but make doing them, much more convenient in most cases. I now wonder if others felt something similar about appliances such as the automatic washing machine, radio, telephone and the television?
Since I live in a fairly isolated area, computers have brought me the world electronically and helped me to be the best of what I am capable of being, in many ways. If I had never allowed my computer curiosity to blossom, I might have missed too much of the learning that has enriched my life. Computers, because they have the capability of interactive communication, have helped me develop the skills and the courage to discover myself and the world around me, and the inner strength and capacity to share it with others.
Sometimes knowing the ambiance of a learning situation and the difficulties experienced by the learner to actually achieve, is a paradigm on what we are capable of accomplishing even in the face of adversity.
While composing this narrative, I have periodically noticed and experienced some severe agitation psychologically. While it should be no more than a learning narrative on the surface, the process seems to have caused a flashback effect for me to a life I no longer lead, and from which I luckily escaped. This, made the exercise very difficult.
I have always been a prolific writer, and in the course of trying to produce my “learning narratives,” I was consistently irritated and emotionally anxious at each attempt. Initially, the only one I was successful at producing was the one where I was not talking about an event that took place during my unhappy, married life. This one, I forced myself to write.
Some people feel you lose ground doing that, going back. Maybe they’re right up to a point, but I’m not going to let that happen to me. The whole thrust of Portfolio Development is to forge ahead once you know, where you’ve been, not to let the past become your master or your home by dwelling there. I think the future, my future . . . Is just around this corner . . . Maybe.