Compuphobia Strikes Again

The first time I sat down to a computer was the day I started working as a part-time Greenfield Recorder sportswriter in the spring of 1979. I was 25, soon to be married, still sowing my wild oats.

I think it was a Hendrix machine; or maybe that was the name of the publishing software installed in the Recorder’s first computerized newsroom. Does the name really matter? The point is, if I wanted to work there or for any newspaper, I had to learn computers. End of story. Me – a friggin’ two-finger typist who’d never taken a typing class or used a typewriter, never mind a computer. I had submitted college essays longhand.

Those were the days before 24/7 cable TV. Hard to imagine. That means no CNN, no MSNBC, ESPN in the incubator.

Cell phones? Are you kidding me? When old friend Chip Ainsworth and I did a local sports talk show between 1980 and ’85 on Greenfield’s 15,000-watt radio station WPOE AM-1520, irked Yankee fans used to pull off the interstate to challenge our Pinstripe barbs from rainy, wind-blown, roadside phone booths. So, yeah, I guess I’m a technological dinosaur.

Which is not to say I can’t get by on computers, and in cyberspace. Though by no means a computer whiz, I have indeed mastered enough computer skills to be functional in the modern world, and did indeed tackle the world of pagination. In fact, as a deadline editor with the last pages sent down to the press room each night, my supervisors ranked me second to none, whether rewriting last-minute game stories or building pages for production, the clock always ticking like a time bomb.

With the final half-hour or so all mine and the news pages already down in the pressroom, I’d battle to the final millisecond to get the last west coast score and updated standings on the Scoreboard page before the press started with a grumble and rolled to a vibrating scream. Still, I can’t say I ever developed intuitive computer skills, like those from the two generations below me.

Today retired, I watch in admiration when my grandchildren pick up any device on God’s green earth and effortlessly navigate their way to intuitive solutions by simple trial and error. Not a whiff of fear or hesitation, totally aware there’s always a way out of any misstep. I don’t have that confidence, didn’t grow up with computers and smart phones. But that’s OK. They’ll never understand the woods, the streams, the swamps and their critters like I do. Not only that but, despite being wired for words, I can do math in my head. It never ceased to amaze me when scribes a generation younger than me were as lost without a calculator as a woodsman in a deep, foggy swamp without a compass.

What brings me to this discussion is a couple of projects steaming to a rapid boil on my front burner. First, I must build my first PowerPoint presentation, to be delivered for Deerfield’s 350th birthday celebration. Then it’s about time I made an honest effort to learn the Samsung Galaxy Tab my wife brought home for me with her new phone from Verizon. I’d like to figure it out as a handy, useful secondary computer. I have been told not to worry, it’s easy. To which I say, easier said than done.

Remember, I’m a self-admitted dinosaur. When I was young and in school, computers were sci-fi tools of the future, housed in their own rooms at high-security sites like the Pentagon, NASA, and MIT. Not for students like me, more interested in integrating happy hours and frat parties with driving overhand curveballs and three-quarters sliders over the right-center-field fence.

I sat down recently with a friend, an accomplished scholar and PhD, who made a house call to teach me PowerPoint. He and I have worked together on many projects focused on history and prehistory of Deerfield and its neighboring towns. We work well together, have complementary skills and knowledge, and share many interests. Unlike me, he carries a smart phone, and clearly has a better handle on modern technology. I attribute this to his ability to carefully read instruction manuals and tinker around until he has this function and that mastered.

I admire such folks, but learn much better with someone looking over my shoulder, which became an obstacle at the Recorder whenever the parent company decided to upgrade its publishing software.

When it came to the software, I was resistant to change because I was always on a deadline auto-pilot routine with the old system, hitting all the repetitious commands in a furious rhythm down the stretch. A new system forced me to learn new commands and disrupted my rhythm, slowing me down in a game where speed was essential. Plus, new systems always presented slightly different language and new drop-menu symbols I had to learn.

Complicating matters, the paper didn’t want to pay for the weeklong, on-site classes offered by the publishing-software company, opting instead for an hourlong classroom led by software-company reps in the upstairs “Pine Room,” and additional training for a select few editors to serve in a newsroom-tutor role. It was a recipe for disaster, placing incredible pressure on the staff teachers, who were themselves learning the new system and thus defensive and frazzled by questions they could not answer under severe deadline pressure.

I acquired special insight into the dynamics of one such transition because, as it turned out, the three reps who came to town to install and teach the software stayed two nights at my Bed & Breakfast. There, in the wee hours after deadline, we’d wind down with Wild Turkey on the rocks and conversation by the dining-room woodstove. In those comfortable pre-bedtime discussions, I learned the Recorder was rolling the dice by deciding to trim proposed training sessions way back to save money.

As they departed on the last morning, they wished me luck. Never, they said, had they left a newspaper staff less prepared to put out a paper.

“Good luck,” the leader chuckled, rolling his eyes on the way out the door. “It’s gonna be a shit-show. You get what you pay.”

Well, though difficult, we got through it. A month or so later, through trials and tribulations, I had mastered the new software and developed a new deadline rhythm. But that experience and others with bare-bones, inadequate training like it left me with “attitude” about learning new computers and gadgets. I resent new terminology and symbols for familiar old functions, and always wonder: Why isn’t there just one transferable language, and one set of drop-menu symbols, for all Windows programs?

So here I sit, procrastinating, fuming, venting, revisiting all the craziness that contributed to my stubborn, self-styled compuphobia. Akin to being launched into a raging river with no paddles or helmet, I have always come out alive and well on the other side, though not unscathed.

That said, mark these words: I will soon have a PowerPoint presentation or two, maybe even three, copied onto a portable thumb drive that can be plugged into any auditorium projector, and that Samsung Galaxy Tab will soon be satisfying my secondary-computer needs.

It’s the learning process I object to. Too much like work. I’m retired.

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