Chapter 1 - Endless possibilities

As you get set to join the digital revolution, think of this venture as starting a new relationship. What do you want to get out of your computer?

If you go into this venture just thinking, "I'm just doing it because I feel I have to," you're not going to get much out of it. Set a simple initial goal. Find a way that the computer can enhance your life and focus on reaching it.

For Gunther, a retiree from Oregon, that motivation was to keep in touch with his sister via e-mail. As for his wife, she was hooked after she saw how she could organize family memoirs using genealogy software.

"For young people, it's games, while adults need enticements such as family tree makers and participation in Internet traffic," he says.

Darryl, a retiree from Corpus Christi, Texas, told me he first entered the world of home computing in the early 90s. He now uses his computer to manage his bank, stock and insurance accounts, pay bills online, file taxes and play games. But he is most hooked by how well it can help him keep in touch with others.

Darryl's cousin in California used the Internet to track him down and they're now visiting regularly and keep in touch through e-mail.

"A word processor is the greatest invention of the 20th century," he says. "I 'write' many more letters than I otherwise might."

And there are many other ways in which a computer can enhance your life. Through online discussion groups and chat rooms, you can form new friendships and expand your world. With an Internet connection and a microphone, you can call friends and family long distance for free and talk as long as you want. You can also:

  • Book travel arrangements online
  • Research subjects of interest
  • Meet people with similar interests
  • Join peer support discussion groups
  • Gain more immediate access to news and weather
  • Play games and puzzles
  • Create your own Internet site
  • Organize your health and medical records
  • Shop for just about anything online

With so many possibilities, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Try focusing on a few tasks you'd like to use your computer for. My father-in-law, J.W., took that approach and has developed a daily routine.

"Usually when I go on the computer, I have specific things I do - check my accounts, read about the [University of Florida] Gators, put the radio on and play Freecell."

Remember, you don't have to use it for everything all at once. If you only want to learn how to read and respond to e-mail, that's great. Get comfortable with it. Once you do, your interests will snowball from there. Eventually, your computer will become the most important, versatile tool you own.

It slices, it dices

All right, so this subheading sounds a bit like a late-night television ad, but a computer is really just a tool, like a hand saw, a vacuum cleaner or a pair of pliers.

A straight-head screwdriver, for instance, has one job - drive in straight-head screws. (OK, so we cheat and open paint cans with it, too.) Tell it to drive in a Phillips-head screw and it will say no. Ask it to pry a thick piece of metal, and you'll soon be at the hardware store buying a new straight-head screwdriver.

A personal computer (PC) is also a tool, albeit a very powerful and flexible one. It is loyal, and it's (usually) going do what you tell it to do. Without you, however, it'll just sit there, passing its time by sending flying logos around the screen until you get back. It's lost without you.

Don't be mislead by HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the sexy "Star Trek" computer voice. Without your knowledge worked into the mix, the computer is not all that smart. In fact, it's downright stupid.

So it's time to roll up our sleeves and learn how to operate this new tool. Stereotypes and dated cliches such as "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" suggest that learning technology becomes more difficult with age. I wholeheartedly disagree with that, because those who are older have had time to develop the trait most important to computing - common sense.

Computer skills (mouse clicking, keystrokes, putting discs in) can be taught; common sense has to be developed over time, and those who don't have it are often doomed until they do. What usually stands between common sense and computer savvy is intimidation, and it's the greatest obstacle that "newbies" (those who are new to technology) have to overcome.

The Oregon retiree, who learned computing back in the days of the text-based DOS systems, initially took a course to increase his skills. The instructor knew the material, but had no idea how frightening technology could be to people his age as well as those in their thirties. He wound up leaving the class and teaching himself how to use the computer by reading the manual

"The trick was to read it cover-to-cover without worrying if I understood it all," he says. "But when I ran into trouble on the keyboard, I knew that the subject had been dealt with and then I went to the particular chapter."

That's good advice. Don't expect that you have to know everything before you do anything. Learning is an ongoing process, best explored through trial and error. Some concepts will click immediately. Some will take time.

It's understandable to be a bit apprehensive the first few times you sit in front of the computer. New technologies are always more attractive to younger crowds, but that has been going on for generations.

When my mother and father Betty married and bought their first house, there was an automatic washing machine in the kitchen. During visits, my grandmother would gaze in amazement as the clothes went around, as if she was watching a TV show. She appreciated the new technology.

But when my grandmother's wringer-type washer finally bit the dust, she replaced it with the same old type. Perplexed, my mom, Betty, asked why she would not go for the latest and greatest. Her response was that she was used to it and didn't want to learn anything new.

My mom, faced with learning the computer 40 years later, now understands that apprehension. "I feel like this thing is running me," she says "I'm always afraid I'm going to do something wrong when I push a button."

This is a common fear. The bottom line is, unless you plan on throwing it out the window or dragging it behind your car, you're not going to break it. Trial and error is the most effective way of learning, and things will get easier over time. Don't be apprehensive, use your common sense and jump in and try stuff.

And, most importantly, remember that this is supposed to be fun. You didn't shell out a couple thousand dollars just to curse at the screen. Learn to enjoy your computer.

NEXT - Chapter 2 - Learning computer skills