Better Living Through Networking

Listen to Your Mom (or Dad) – Part Two

Underwood Manual Typewriter

In Part One I started this series by describing how my cousin Krista had asked my mom to record some of her experiences on paper, and how Mom told me a story about my grandfather that I had never heard before.

An idea had instantly presented itself: To put together not a few, but all the stories Mom could remember. To publish them in a real book, and surprise her with it as a gift.

It was a worthy goal, but it was not to be without its challenges.

We would need to find a way to get Mom’s scribblings into electronic form. In her youth Mom had learned to “hunt and peck” on a manual typewriter. I grew up with that old Underwood, and it stayed with us (through many moves) for a lot of years. She had given it away several years ago, and at 90 her finger strength was no longer enough to use that old manual anyway.

Hiring someone to transcribe her scribblings was out of the question, because just trying to read and make sense of Mom’s notes would soon drive anyone stark raving mad.

There was only one possible solution: She would have to type it herself. And to do that, she would have to learn a little bit of word processing.

My mom had never touched a computer and had never had a desire to do so. But she was game to try, so for her Christmas gift Carol and I gave her a Windows notebook computer.

She had some experience with a keyboard on a manual typewriter, so a computer keyboard at least looked similar. The bigger problem was teaching her how to use a mouse. Like most people of her generation, she was used to taking her time to push a switch button, which does not work well when using a mouse – especially double-clicking. To compound that, her experience was that when you pushed a button and it didn’t work, you should press it again – much harder!

Some training was in order. My first job was to write a simple program I called “Mom’s Mouse Trainer”. It would start automatically each time her computer started, and would drill her on using the mouse – single-clicking, double-clicking and dragging. To learn clicking, the object was to click in a small box on the screen; the program would keep score of hits and misses, and the box would move after each try. The size of the target was reduced for clicking and dragging as she got more proficient.

After she became more comfortable with using the trainer we transitioned over to good old Solitaire. She had taught me to play Solitaire (with playing cards) when I was about six; now I was teaching her to play it electronically at ninety.

While she was getting more proficient with the mouse I was creating a simple course with screencasts to teach the basics of word processing using WordPad. Three weeks later she was busily typing in those scribbled notes (and a whole lot more).

Before turning her loose at writing her document, I wrote one other simple program that would run each time the computer started. This program would make a new copy of her document on an SD card plugged into the computer. (This came in handy on several occasions.)

There were many mistakes and many laughs during the process of learning and using word processing, but here is my favorite story: One day Mom called me in a panic to tell me that the computer had completely lost her document – it was there one minute, and it had simply disappeared the next!

It turned out that she had opened the document (cursor in the first character position), had laid her hands over the keyboard, started to imagine an incident in her life, and then “napped out”. When her head slumped forward so did her hands, and for two minutes her index finger was pushing the Enter key – inserting about 20,000 blank lines at the beginning of the document!

(To be continued in Part Three of this series.)

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