Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Here we go again...

I went to Walmart on my lunch break yesterday, only to hear someone yell my name. Two someones, actually.

My parents were there, having just stocked up on the essentials (you know, chips, oreos, bread, milk, lots of Kleenex, dog and cat food, the usual stuff). My mother instantly said, "Laura, why don't you go show your father the laptops! I'll put this in the car and meet you in electronics!"

That was when I should have run away. But I didn't.

"I don't want to spend too much," Dad insisted as we walked across the sprawling building.

"How much is too much?" I asked, falling for his ploy, every second bringing me toward my inevitable fate: shopping with Dad.

My dad is the WORST shopper on the face of the planet. He once took over an hour choosing between two identical watch bands for his watch. We were in a tiny K-Mart, and all there was for me to do was stare at the glass cases while Dad made the sales associate want to kill him, kill herself, or both. Finally I strode up, selected the least expensive of the two, and forced him to buy it. The next day, he went back to the same store, returned the first watchband, and bought the other one.

He's not just indecisive. He HATES spending any kind of money on himself, especially on what he considers non-essentials. He'll buy forty packs of plain white undershirts that fill two drawers in his dresser. He'll even buy so many socks that they fill up his drawer so tightly it can't close. He'll buy clothes, but he wants to get them Walmart-clearance-style: three dollars a dress shirt. These shirts are as ugly as sin, but the pride he has in finding such a good deal outweighs the inconvenience of startling plaids and misshapen sleeves.

What he won't buy are the things he'd use the most. These things would make his life so much easier, but he considers them an extravagance and worries what the people at our church will think of him if he wears, say, Merrell shoes instead of knock-offs. This is a man with flat feet--completely flat! He gets knee and back pain in bad shoes! But his suffering is, in his mind, worth it if it means he can fit in. And by that, he means not be noticed as having anything "different."

Mom and I have gotten into the habit of cleaning out his wardrobe without his knowledge, getting rid of the worn out rag-like shirts he buys at Goodwill by the dozen ($.50) and some of the billions of socks (the ones with baggy elastic that aren't quite white anymore or others with holes in the toes). We then go to Elder Beerman or some other such place during a big sale, and buy him well-made shirts on clearance because he'll like them if we show him we saved lots of money on them.

It's the only way. I mean, family vacations (the two we had when I was a child) consisted mainly of eating off the dollar menu (which also meant McDonald's, the only restaurant with an established dollar menu at the time), driving hundreds of miles with no air conditioning, music, or other form of entertainment (while Paul slept in the seat next to me, his head smacking against the window of the station wagon with each sharp turn or pothole) until we finally reached our destination: a woods nearly identical to the one on our property but with no running water, flash flooding, leaking tents, and, worst of all, centipedes.

Once our campsite had been set up, Dad would take us to a grocery store where we would buy provisions like spray cheese and crackers, which we would eat for every meal while Dad marched us down four mile trails, turned us around, and lead us back to camp. Years later, I discovered that the trails he chose weren't really the length the map claimed they were, because the map didn't account for the length of the trail, just the distance between the beginning and end of said trail computed as if the trail were a straight line. In truth, we walked far longer, because the trails wound around hills with twists and curves so we didn't fall off a cliff or get bored and so that the parks and recreations people didn't have to build bridges over waterways and whatnot. It was lucky we had our great souvenirs to entertain us, otherwise we'd have succumbed to depression. These were, of course, ROCKS that we picked up off the ground, named, and built habitats for with moss and twigs.

From these trips I learned: 1. Never go on a vacation with Dad. 2. Never go on a vacation with Dad. 3. Never go on a vacation with Dad. 4. If you MUST go on a vacation with Dad, due to family insistence, obligation, blackmail, etc., be sure to (A) Bring your own money to buy all sundries you find desirable, like books or a poncho or REAL FOOD (B) Book a hotel reservation with Mom several weeks in advance, then surprise Dad by handing him directions to said hotel as we pile into the car or (C) Bring iPod and turn music up loud enough to mask sound of road-trip and Dad, then sleep in the car or knit until your hands cramp up. Luckily for me, we haven't had a vacation together since Dad started preaching, and that was back when I was 11.

Is it clear that, though I love my father, I do not trust his judgement regarding needs vs. wants? Because I do love him, and his dollar menu ways. He's quirky, but then, who isn't? But everybody has a breaking point, and Dad seems to be on a mission to find mine, with shopping and computer instruction (we'll get to that) as his main tools.

How much was too much? How much did Dad want to spend on his new computer?

"Oh, I could spend about three hundred," he said as we strode past the white undershirt aisle. "I wouldn't want to get an expensive one. I'm not going to spend five hundred, or something. But I want it with keys that are big enough for my hands."


"You know you aren't going to get a laptop for that, right Dad?" I asked. "They're more expensive. You'll have to just get a netbook.

"But those have tiny keys!" he insisted. "I want one with a keyboard I can use."

"So you want a laptop," I said. "You aren't going to find one of those for three hundred dollars. Unless you want it to not work from the moment you open the package and you want to have to replace it after the first year."

"No," he said. "I don't want to have to buy two!"

"Mine cost around seven hundred," I reported. "I've had it for three years now, and it still works wonderfully. I made sure to get one I could keep for at least four years, hopefully longer."

Dad nodded, this he approved of.

We reached electronics and I showed him the laptops. The first problem was that Walmart had mixed the netbooks in with the laptops and arranged them all by price, something that confused Dad beyond belief. He immediately began to look at each price tag.

"I could get this one!"

"That's a netbook, Dad," I said. "Look at that tiny keyboard. I thought you wanted bigger keys."

"I do!"

"Then look at laptops."

He stared. I explained how much memory would be good for him, how he should make sure to get one that wasn't assembled on a truck-bed in the middle of the desert by a guy with a glue-gun, some duct tape, and occasional teeth, but he didn't listen. I then stopped and just let him point at netbooks because they were cheap.

"You can get a netbook," I said. "But first you need to think about how you'll use it. Do you want to download a lot of software, like Office or other programs? Do you want to save a lot to the computer? And do you want to put music on it?"

"I want to do those things," he said. "I want to put Irish music on it."

"Okay," I said. "So you want a computer that can store more than a netbook can."

This was when Mom arrived. I repeated everything I told Dad, but unlike Dad, Mom listened. I then pointed out a few with good qualities. Then I told her that Dad wouldn't need the best laptop in the world, because he wouldn't be using it for hard-core gaming like Paul uses his.

"This one," I said. "Has more memory than my laptop, which is fantastic, and it's an HP like mine. I love my HP. They're all we use at work, too."

"Good!" said Mom. "Let's get it!"

You should know that every major computer purchase made by Mom in the years we've had computers in the house have been impulse buys. It's a good thing Paul and I know what we're talking about, because she'd have ended up with absolute junk otherwise.

"No!" Dad interrupted, catching Mom's arm. "We can't afford it!"

"Yes we can," Mom said. She does our accounting. She shrugged off his arm.

"JUL!" Dad almost-shouted. "We can't afford it!"

He continued to say this, growing in volume with each repetition. People began to stare. I did the only thing I could do under the circumstances, the only thing that didn't involve me telling my father to behave himself in public. I fled.

I went and stared at the DVDs while Mom talked to the sales guy. I perused the CDs while the sales guy pulled out the computer and while she payed for it.

Then I went back to work.

Dad, I thought, would be happy with his purchase in about six to 12 months. He would continue to remind Mom that it was a lot of money to spend on a laptop, and she would ignore him. He would have crippling buyers remorse and would come to me time and time again for reassurance.

"This is a good computer, right?" He would ask. "So-and-So said such-and-such thing about it. Are they right? Should we have gotten a different one? Did I need more memory? Is this processor any good?" He wouldn't know what either of those terms meant, but he would repeat them.

I would soothe him, as I did when someone criticized his Irish whistle playing abilities, or the new whistle he'd purchased.

"Do you like the computer?" I would say. "Do you use it all the time?"

"Yes," he would reply.

"Does it do everything you want it to?" I would continue.

"Yes..." Dad would say, looking forlorn in my doorway.

"Then So-and-So doesn't know what he is talking about. You're the one who knows what you need in a computer. So-and-so isn't using it, is he?"

"No. He isn't," he would pause. "Good. I'm glad. Thanks. I knew it was a good computer. I just wanted to check. I don't want to have a bad one."

Worse than that, though, would be the computer training.

Dad can use a computer. He's a smart guy. He can figure things out. He just thinks he can't. Also, he is afraid of them.

A few months after I started working at the library, I got a phone call.

"Laura?!" Dad said. "I need your help!"

I envisioned something serious, like Mom or Paul being ill, Dad being ill, or a vast zombie horde staggering across the state leaving scores of victims in their wake.

"How do I copy and paste a website into an e-mail?" he demanded.

"You highlight the text you want to highlight and then click "copy" and then go to where you want to put whatever it is, and click "paste" to put it there."

"Wait a minute," he said. "What?"

"You click to copy it--"

"Where do I click?!" he said. "I don't see a copy button!"

We were on the phone for twenty minutes. Once I'd finally gotten him to manage to copy the address he wanted, I told him to paste it where he wanted the address to go.

"I can't!" he said. "I left the e-mail!"

"Why?" I said. "I thought you were going to paste into the e-mail."

"I am! But I left there to copy the other address!"

"Well, go back to your--"

"I can't! Now my post is gone, because I left!"

Then he hung up on me.

Now Dad thinks he cannot copy or paste anything, anywhere, despite the fact that this is a complete and utter lie. There is your back story. Now you will understand what happened next.

I returned home with a new book, gave Paul his birthday present very early because he'd wanted a used game that is super-rare that I managed to find randomly and buy, but if it doesn't work, it would have to go back within seven days for him to get a refund, and his birthday is more than seven days from now. It's almost two weeks away.

I went back to my room, dumped my new book (Zombies vs Unicorns, a short story compilation edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier) on the bed, and kicked off my shoes.

"Laura..." I heard Dad call.

He was in his room, sitting on the little blue chair by the bed, bent over double to read the screen of his computer, which was sitting on the bed rather than, you know, on his...lap.

"What, Dad?"

"I need you to teach me the stuff," he said. "You've gotta show me how to put music on here. And you've gotta favorite iTunes, so I can find it."

"I can't do that yet," I said. "You don't have iTunes yet. And I can't favorite iTunes. Do you remember why we can't do that?"

[long pause]

"Because it's a computer program, Dad. It's like Word. I can't favorite Word for you to use, and iTunes works the same way. It's on your computer, remember?"

We'd had that conversation several times before.

"Okay," he said. "Let's get music."

I took his computer and started adding the various Adobe things you need to run the website that lets you download iTunes. Next up would have been Quicktime, which you need to download iTunes too, which is kind of stupid, when you think about it, because iTunes comes with Quicktime like a package deal.

"You need a password, right? For my iTunes?"


Dad vanished. I fought his computer some more, trying to get rid of this HP Advisor dock thing that was taking up space and slowing everything down for no reason.

Then he reappeared, right before I was about to start mutter one long line of swears in various languages, cursing the computer and its HP Advisor. Stupid thing.

"Here," he said, holding out a fragment of paper. "This is it. Wait. I thought my password was *********. It is, isn't it?"

"I don't know, Dad."

"Here," he said.

"I don't need that."

"But you need it, to get onto iTunes."

"I'm not going to buy music, Dad. I am downloading it."

"But you need the password."

"No, I don't. I don't need that to download it," I repeated. "You do, for later. You need to keep that. But I don't need it."

"Oh," he said. He put away the paper.

By the time he had returned, I had finally finished another update, but I was tired what with the measly two hours of sleep I'd had the night before.

"I'll get you the rest of the downloads you need tomorrow and Wednesday," I said.

"Wait. Wait, you've gotta teach me how to copy and paste."

"How have you used a computer for this long without learning that? You use it in Word, don't you?"

"Yes," he replied. "But it's not the same. On Chiff and Fipple, you put an address in the forum box, and it turns blue. I need to know how to make the letters blue."

He meant how to post a link. Which, we all know, is automatic when you type in something like an e-mail or an address.

"It works exactly the same way. If you can copy and paste in Word, you can copy and paste anywhere."

I pulled up his homepage. I showed him how to highlight the text he wanted to copy, how to copy it, and then how to paste it. Then I opened Word and I typed: "I MUST LEARN HOW TO COPY AND PASTE BECAUSE IT IS AN ESSENTIAL SKILL I SHOULD HAVE LEARNED ON OUR FIRST HOME COMPUTER BACK IN 1996."

Then I instructed him to practice copying and pasting that phrase. Then I made him try this one: MY DAUGHTER IS THE BEST IT NON-PROFESSIONAL I HAVE EVER AND WILL EVER MEET. I AM GRATEFUL TO HER FOR HER PATIENCE AND EXPERTISE.

And let's face it. If he can't manage to learn how to copy and paste, and he can't understand that copying and pasting is the same in everything Windows and Non-Windows because if it wasn't, computer users everywhere would have spontaneous psychotic breaks and go after Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and whoever else happened to be in their paths. If Dad can't figure out how to handle a simple copy and paste, after having and using a computer both at home and at work daily for over ten years, I don't know what to do. It's like the Year of Power Point all over again, only this time, he doesn't have the luxury of the I've-Never-Used-This-Program-Before Excuse to fall back on.

Some of you might suggest that I write out instructions so he can look at them later if he needs them. I have done that. That's what the little paper with his password for iTunes had on the back. Has he ever looked at that paper? No. How do I know? He didn't even know his own password. If he doesn't know that, he hasn't used iTunes without me. Even once.

But he has a surprise coming. If he asks me one more copy and paste question, I am signing him up for a basic computer skills class faster than he can say "dollar menu."

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