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February 23, 2013

Lessons learned, and ignored, from my mom and dad

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The Daily Star

---- — Sometimes I think I must be a terrible disappointment to my parents. 

Sure, I got good grades, stayed out of trouble and grew up to become a moderately responsible adult. But despite their efforts, I did not follow in their tech-savvy footsteps. 

My parents fell for computers hard when I was in elementary school. They brought home a Macintosh in about 1985 and set it up in our living room. I distinctly remember running the training program that taught me, in typical friendly Apple fashion, how to use the mouse and double-click. It was my first experience with the GUI, or graphical user interface, that is so ubiquitous today but still somewhat rare back then. Mom and Dad were hooked; I was, at best, mildly curious. 

That first computer soon gave way to many more, but the one I remember most fondly was an Amiga. (If you don’t remember the Amiga computer, I’m not that surprised. They were actually very popular as home computers in the 1980s, but that’s sort of like saying that Virgin Galactic is a popular space tourism company.) 

What made the Amiga great were its graphics capabilities (years ahead of its competitors) and the robust assortment of games available for it.

My mom was the Tetris queen; no one could beat her high score, although my sister came close. My dad and I ruled at Sidewinder, which was a variation on the traditional side-scrolling shooter — this one scrolled from top to bottom as you piloted your little fighter plane and shot down enemies against a vivid and intricate backdrop. And we all slogged through the endless missions of Rocket Ranger, which was a knockoff of the “Rocketeer” comics upon which the movie of the same name was based.  

But when my mom and dad attempted to interest me in things like programming languages, or how to rebuilt a hard drive, I had no interest. And in high school, when my dad introduced me to what we then called the World Wide Web, and offered to teach me HTML so I could build my own website, I politely declined. 

What I did learn from my parents is that computers are not something to be feared; that if you have a problem or don’t know how to do something, to go ahead and dive in and try to do it yourself, because it’s probably not that complicated. 

Maybe more importantly, I learned that it’s never too late in life to discover a passion. It was their interest in computers that sent my mom and dad back to school, and subsequently launched entirely new careers for each of them. My dad transformed from a farmer to a multimedia systems analyst, which meant nothing to me at the time but I now understand was no mean feat. He landed a job at the state Employment Department, where he was part of a team that programmed touchscreen kiosks to help people find jobs. I actually found my first job through one of his kiosks — but that’s a story for another day. 

And my mom, who had left college as an undergrad without getting her degree, went back to college, only to get hired as a support tech before she could even finish her program. When people call the newspaper looking for help with our website, or are unsure about how to attach a file to an email message, I find myself echoing the calm and cheerful tones I heard my mom use when answering a support call from home. (And yes, the first question she would often ask was, “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?”) 

My parents are still infected by the computer bug. After years of toiling in the land of PCs, they went back to their first love and are now an all-Apple household. Classic early adopters, they were on the waiting list to get the first iPhones and iPads, and have passed along their “outdated” models to my sister and me over the years (which is the only reason I now have an iPad). 

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle between my tech-savvy folks and those people on the phone who aren’t sure what an email attachment is. And I’m OK with that. With any luck, my mom and dad are, too.

EMILY F. POPEK is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at epopek@thedailystar.com.