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Excerpt from Is This Thing On?

There Is Nothing to Fear But Technology Itself

Bring the World to Your Fingertips

Research, find, and buy anything you can imagine, and communicate with loved ones, without leaving home—what a computer and the Internet offer

Chapter 1

My mother still can’t reset her car’s clock after daylight saving time. She just adds or subtracts an hour until I come home for a visit. And the first week after she buys a new car, she only drives it in the Stop & Shop parking lot. Once she feels comfortable enough to take it on the road, it’s still a few months before the windshield wipers stop being activated whenever she means to signal a right turn. Considering her lack of technical savvy and anxiety about new devices, I am incredibly proud of her for joining the community of computer users. Mom had never shown any interest in computers, but like so many seniors, she knew she was missing out on something when she began to notice that every article she read ended with “For more information go to www.[insertalmost anything here].com.”

“Peach, what is a website?” she asked me.

“Think of the computer as a combination television set and typewriter. Then think of the Internet as a library. You can find information on absolutely anything you can dream up on the Internet by accessing different websites—as you would books in a library. Just type in what you want to learn about, and it will appear in front of you in the form of pictures, text, and sound” was my answer.

A website is like a book. Instead of going to the library and looking up a title in the card catalog (which is now on a computer), you go to your computer and type in a website address.  Because there can be more than one website for a given subject, you’ll have many choices available to you. Each website is designed individually, just as books are written individually by different authors.

Anyone can have a website—even you. All that is needed is the desire to convey information and the willingness to pay a small annual fee to a company to register the name of your  website. If you don’t mind piggybacking on another website or having advertisements on your site, you may be able to have a website at no cost.

A few months after my mother first asked me about the Internet, she visited me in New York and wanted to see a Broadway musical.  This was the perfect opportunity to show her what a computer can do, what the Internet has to offer, and how I make my living (I teach computer skills to seniors and others). I turned on my computer, connected to the Internet, and then typed in (the website address of a company that sells theater tickets), and like magic, their website appeared on my screen. I picked the show we wanted to see and the date that was best for us. Next, the seating chart appeared on the screen and we chose our seats. Then I ordered the tickets and typed in my e-mail address where I would receive the e-tickets and then printed them on my printer at home.

Mom was impressed. I’ve been teaching people how to maneuver around the Internet for more than two decades now, and it continues to amaze me with the infinite ways that it can benefit those who use it. The Internet allows you to track investments, research family genealogy, contact buddies, purchase a new car, auction a coin collection, search for the best deal on airline tickets, and so much more.

Convincing Mom Continues . . .

The ease with which we were able to purchase the theater tickets via the computer had my mother intrigued.

“What else can the Internet do?”

“I can’t tell you everything it can do, Mom, because it’s constantly evolving. I don’t think anyone really knows its full
capabilities. But I’ll give you some examples of what I think is fun and practical about it.”

Mom had lost track of a dear friend of hers several years ago and, after much effort, sadly gave up on finding her. I signed on to the Internet and typed in (a website where you can search for people and businesses). A form appeared on the screen of my computer, into which I typed her friend’s name and some additional information. Within a few seconds there were seven listings of people with the same name as Mom’s long-lost friend. The listings that appeared included telephone numbers and street addresses.  The happy ending is that Mom found her friend. From that moment on, she was sold on the computer.

Shirley, one of my mother’s friends, suffers from a very rare cancer. After she became hooked on the computer, not only did she find detailed information about her specific form of cancer and alternative treatment ideas, but she also found a group of people with the same condition. She now communicates with some of them daily. All of this is done through her computer, which enables her to be involved in the world around her even when she is housebound.  To say that the Internet can give you information on anything you can dream up may sound like a huge overstatement, but it’s true.

A Taste of What Some People Do with the Internet

One of my students, Sophie, always has an interesting list of things she wants to find out about on the Internet. During one lesson, we visited websites with information about renting a house on Martha’s Vineyard, tracked down an artist whose work she wanted to buy, and found a doormat with Jack Russell terriers emblazoned on it.

By typing Martha’s Vineyard rentals in a search engine (which I’ll explain to you later), we came upon more than a dozen websites, many of them with photos of the interiors and exteriors of the houses available. While looking at a photo of one of the rentals, we noticed the words “how to get here” on the screen. We clicked on the words and a different website appeared that offered us driving directions and a map that showed the best route. Sophie printed the directions and set them aside to put in her car’s glove compartment.

Then came the mission of tracking down the artist whose work she liked. First we typed in the artist’s name, but that didn’t work. Then she remembered what gallery showed his work and typed that in. Not only did it give us contact information, but one of his paintings was featured on the website as well.

On to the doormat. That took a little ingenuity. We searched for “doormats” and “doormats with dogs.” We found tons of doormats and a surprising number of doormats with dogs, but not the right kind of dog. Then we searched for “Jack Russell terriers.” We found a great-looking doormat and bought it over the Internet with her credit card. It was delivered the next week. We both had ear-to-ear grins of satisfaction.

What More Does the Internet Offer?

Another really great feature of the information superhighway is that you can communicate inexpensively with other  people all over the world. I remember when we would call my grandparents and have just enough time to say, “Hello. How are things?” before my grandfather would say, “Okay. Enough, ladies. This is long distance. Say good-bye now.” I don’t mean to make light of the cost of a telephone call or how hard my grandfather worked for his money, but wasn’t that why they invented long distance, so we could talk to each other? Well, thank heaven for computer technology. I have students who communicate with friends and family across the globe everyday. If it wasn’t for the Internet, this would be financially impossible for most of us.

E-mail = ?

E-mail, or electronic mail, is the same idea as sending a letter (now lovingly referred to as snail mail), but rather than waiting for it to go from a mailbox to your local post office, get sorted, sent to another post office, and then delivered by foot to the recipient, you send your message through the computer by way of your phone line or a high-speed connection to the Internet. This all happens in a matter of seconds rather than days.

Still confused? Well, e-mail confused me, too, until I could actually see how it all worked. So if things in this book get a bit murky, have faith that when you get in front of a computer and see what I’m talking about, it will all make sense.

What Else Can a Computer Do for Me?

It cannot be denied that along with all the other things you can accomplish on a computer, it is the Internet, with its access to the information superhighway, that has made computers a must-have over the years.

However, having a computer offers you much more than the Internet. You will have the ability to organize your address book, create a family newsletter, and, if you want to, simulate flying a plane and master chess. Some of my students track their frequent-flier miles, inventory their collectibles, and design their own stationery. The computer can consolidate your paperwork, create order in your world, and track your finances.

There is no end to how a computer can organize, simplify, and enhance your life. But first you need to learn a bit more about computers, decide what you want to buy, and get it up and running. The whole undertaking of buying a computer can seem very overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. This book will guide you through the entire process. You will be pleasantly surprised by how easy it will be to make an educated purchase and how quickly you will learn to use and love your computer.

In Conclusion

Mom now e-mails me every day. She sends and receives attachments (which I’ll describe to you later in the book)
from the various committees she volunteers on. She has also become our family’s online detective. When my brother was looking into summer camp for his four kids, Mom did all of the research for Jeff online. She investigated the location of each camp and gave my brother printouts from the local chamber of commerce and tourism websites with hotel and restaurant recommendations, highlighting the best places to buy a lobster roll! She printed driving directions and an area map. All things she found surfing the web.

This world that you keep hearing about is not passing you by—it’s just waiting for you to come along. What computers can offer you is amazing and boundless, but you’re not alone if it seems elusive and intimidating. Most of my students are over 50 and new to computers, and I can’t explain to you how exciting it is for them (and me) when they start to zoom around the Internet and begin to enjoy what the digital realm has to offer.

Before you know it, the world will be your oyster. Trust me, if my mother can do it, you can too! (I’m only teasing you, Mom.)

Q: I’ve just bought a computer for my parents. The last thing I want to do is scare them when they’re already so tentative. What things should I avoid discussing so I don’t confuse or intimidate them?

A: There are no topics you need to avoid discussing with your parents. What you need to avoid is using computer jargon. You’ll know when you’ve done it because their eyes will start to glaze over. The other crucial thing is to take your time. You may be in a rush, but they are not. Rushing people who are fearful or overwhelmed only makes them retreat. For more tips on how to teach your parents, read “10 Tips for Teaching Computers to Future Silver Surfers” on my website: (You can find the article in the “First Steps” section.) Good luck!

Q: What’s the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet, if there is one?

A: The Internet contains the World Wide Web in the same way that the United States contains Vermont. The World Wide Web is actually a subnetwork of the Internet.

Q: What is an e-ticket?

A: E-ticket means “electronic ticket.” Rather than have an actual ticket in your hand, a record of your ticket is in the computer system of the company you bought the ticket from. E-tickets are used for airline reservations, theater, and other entertainment venues. It is smart to print the record of your e-ticket as proof of your purchase.

Q: Where can I test a computer before deciding to buy one?

A: Your local library should offer free access to computers. If the computers at the library are very busy, there may be a sign-in sheet where you can reserve a time slot. Ask the librarian if they offer any computer classes. If they don’t, contact your nearest community center about classes. A lot of adult education programs offer computer classes as well. Any of these are good options for playing around on a computer and seeing if you might want to venture further. Senior Net has Senior Learning Centers all over the country. Call 571-203-7100 to find one near you.

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