May 7, 2007

My First Computer

(Note: this was originally posted May 5, 2007 on a now-defunct blog, on which I was going to preview drafts for a collection of essays I wanted to turn into a book. That project has been shelved...for now.)

Around the time I was about ten years old, my family got our first computer, an Apple IIC. I can't remember whose initial idea it was to procure this thick, plastic, whirring, thrilling yet sometimes disappointing bit of digital magic, but I know it quickly became a group effort involving thinly-disguised tech envy and improbable purchase justification.

My Dad, a pilot by profession, has always had an itch to play with shiny and/or fast technology, whether it be in the form of an airplane, a race car, or the coolest computer he could give his kids for Christmas. He also clearly enjoyed the “slightly cooler Dad whose lame jokes we will tolerate with better humor for two to four days after the bequeathing to children of a cool new toy” status, and I can't say my siblings and I didn't take some pleasure in being able to court the intense-if-temporary attention of the neighborhood kids who would pop by to enjoy a demonstration of our new plaything, whether it be a new computer or a giant marble slab of a Yamaha keyboard.

"Yeah, this is a Yamaha keyboard, just like the one in that kickass Flock of Seagulls video," one of us would say with practiced casualness while leaning on the oversized and somewhat clunky instrument, delighted to be the center of our friends’ rapt attention. We would then hammer out the opening chords to Van Halen's "Jump" and bask for another moment in the glow of admiration.

Generally, a week or so later, things like the Yamaha keyboard would be shoved under a bed and forgotten until next time Mom decided she wanted to hold a garage sale, and we'd excavate our rooms and discover these long-neglected toys, prompting a round of dismayed sighs from Mom, who knew all along that they represented an impetuous and impractical use of limited resources. The computer, however, proved to be a more lasting influence.


As perhaps is the case in other families, budget and money conflicts sometimes arose in our clan when Dad, the family earner, made an impulse purchase without consulting Mom, the family resource manager. Heated discussions would ensue, giving us kids another earful of the specific dynamic of the economic balance of power between Mom and Dad, which seemed a delicate but functioning series of checks and balances. The Apple was quickly understood to be the focal point of another round of "Why didn't you ask me before you bought this," "The kids will learn a lot from this, and it will help them in school," and "If you're going to keep pulling this kind of stunt, I'm going to hide the checkbook again."

Of course, a purchase as big as a computer could be more easily rationalized if it could be moved into a different column in the family budget. Is it a toy, or is it an investment in the children's education? Dad insisted on the latter. Sounds logical enough in theory, but in practice, this meant we kids would have to take a fun plaything like a computer and turn it into an educational tool.

More specifically, this meant I was condemned to many a weekend of marching straight from two hour swim practice to a shameful and damaging group activity, the disclosure of which I can only hope will help me shed its stigma - computer camp. Yes, there was, under summer school duress, lots of time spent resentfully coding, and batch file swapping, and performing the eye-meltingly boring line-by-line scrutinizing of programs designed to do no more than greet a user with their name, and leave a curious, blinking cursor stagnant on the screen, awaiting further instruction.

Given my early exposure to the mesmerizing pleasures of the computer, and repeated academic and work situations in which I found myself the only girl in the room, it should be no wonder that I grew up to be a fervent blog nerd, and comedy nerd, and am, in fact, crafting this essay to be posted on a blog well before it will be printed on a piece of paper. Once a nerd, always a nerd, I suppose.


My brothers and I fought so much over who got to play with the computer that at one point the voice of reason (also known as "Mom") intervened and insisted that we set up a schedule for computer time, a system of index cards blocked off with hours of the day, so we could prearrange our Apple time, with no room for arguing. We even went so far as to color code our half-hours of computer time with shades that indicated reasons for use, and therefore urgency. A "Homework" slot could take priority and get bumped into a "Games" slot, for example. Certain activities were simply more important than others, and a ranking system would help make this clear. There was no way that Jim's desire to play "Ape Escape" was going to trump my need to peck out an early attempt at poetry for English class, transparent and self-important pre-adolescent girl poetry destined to be burned into the vulnerable grooves of a floppy (in those days, they actually were floppy) disk.

There were ways around the ranking system, at least, at first. What was to prevent someone from signing up for a “homework” slot but sitting down and booting up the jittery, blockily-pixelated Apple version of Pong? Well, a strategic positioning of the computer desk so that the monitor faced the entirety of our large living room, where most of us spent our after dinner hours, that’s what.

Reflecting on this now makes me weep for a time when the plodding speed of processor technology did not allow for the discreet toggling we can now do with undetected stealth any time we are about to be caught dodging work by doing things like deftly cruising the internet for confirmation of the syntax of obscure Monty Python quotes (the better to settle petty arguments with).


There were several games on the IIC that we played quite a bit, all of which are ridiculously slow and simple from the vantage point of today's sophisticated, realistic, and sometimes disconcertingly immersive games. (Some other time I will have to write a bit about the sad and dark story of how I sacrificed an entire winter's free time to the digitally narcotic Sims2 - damn you, Wil Wright!)

There was "Lemonade Stand," the software you wanted to give to your entrepreneurial Reagan-era child, to give them a chance to start developing valuable neural pathways by doing things like predicting the effect of simulated weather conditions on one's business, balancing the need for more lemonade-making ingredients against the need to protect one's pile of squarish, monochromatic money bags with big dollar signs on them.

Also marginally fun was "The Coveted Mirror," a fantasy-type Choose Your Own Adventure kind of game, minus the thrilling speed with which one can flip through the pages of a book. The game was so slow that none of us ever had the patience to play long enough understand the ultimate goal of the game. Indeed, the commands entered, limited to simple phrasing like "go window" and "get sword" propelled the player into an intoxicatingly fast set of exciting experiences including taking ten minutes to pick up a mirror, and asking it questions it would (also after ten minutes) tell you it didn't understand.

We also burned away a lot of time playing the incredibly slow, repetitive, and anti-climactic "Ape Escape," which involved a clumsy King Kong-type protagonist scaling a burning building, swatting away airplanes like so many annoying analog mosquitoes, and perhaps rescuing a squalling imperiled heroine along the way. The most problematic aspect of the game was the feature that allowed high scoring players to enter their names into the high score hall of fame, because my brothers had no reservations about typing in rude and juvenile phrases instead of their names, rewarding future high scorers a glimpse at a list of "Ape Escape" superplayers like David Dickhead and Polly Penis.


The Apple computer was a very important tool in my development as a writer. I had been a high-volume and endlessly curious reader as well as scribbler, doodler, and secretive journal keeper since I was quite little, but somehow the idea of typing on a computer, and preserving my carefully chosen words and therefore their tenuously crafted ideas as a stream of code was different, and exciting, and intriguing. Paper burned, minds changed, memories faded, but ones and zeroes were forever, or so it sometimes seems.

I remember the great care with which I sat one evening, as the rest of my family sat gathered around the television set and coffee table at the other end of the living room, as I snapped my giant foam Walkman earphones on over my hair, spiky and crunchy with a mix of chlorine and Paul Mitchell awapuhi gel, turned up what was probably the latest hot release from something horrible like Wham!, and focused myself on the task of composing a series of poems. My life as a writer was about to begin, and it would begin with poems. Poems about the most powerful symbol known to man, a symbol both elemental and transcendent, inspiring of both passion and reason, a symbol so complex Susan Sontag dodged its careful parsing and deconstructing up until the last day of her life - the rainbow.

Among the three key myths that little girls obsess about (the other two being unicorns and true love) is rainbows. These are widespread and powerful fixations I have not quite been able to get to the bottom of, despite years of careful thought and research into the subjects - and by research I mean late night insomnia-fueled Googling through academic papers and liberal arts essay archives, interrupted by periodic forays into YouTube and pop culture gossip blogs. What is it about rainbows that is so universally appealing to little girls? Is it that they, like the other hallmarks of girlhood, are a tool to help us understand our emerging selves? Rainbows are elusive and appear only under very particular circumstances, which adds to the mysteriousness of their beauty. Did we, as little girls, use rainbows as symbols of our own frightening mystery and beauty? Some theories hint that using this kind of symbolism is one way for us to regard and understand the nature of our emerging femininity, which, well before we can ever express this, we understand to afford us both great power and great vulnerability. It could be all of that. It could also just be the plain obvious fact that rainbows are awesome.

I sat at the Apple computer tapping out poem after poem about each color of the rainbow, throwing in brown for good measure, so I could philosophize in a very ten year old way about the nature of decay, and hunger, and the plight of disadvantaged people who were themselves brown. Ah, yes, the brown people. How noble and charitable of me to spend ten minutes at the keyboard, hacking out a poem using the bluntest of metaphors and the most self-serious of tones on their behalf. Surely the brown people were better off for me having written this poem. I intimately knew their plight because I caught occasional glimpses at the covers of National Geographic while passing through my school library, and once at a friend’s house I watched a few minutes of a Live Aid concert with great concern and seriousness.

I finished writing the rainbow poems, saved them to the whirring hard drive, and then saved them to a carefully labeled floppy disk as well ("Elizabeth's Poems! Do not erase or you will die!!"), since surely writing this culturally significant should be saved in multiple places to ensure preservation for future generations. I then set about the very time consuming task of printing them out.

Even today I could probably hum with great accuracy the particular melancholy mechanical melody of the dot matrix printer, which whined resentfully back and forth (several times for each line of text) across the pages, which needed to stripped of their perforated printer feeder side strips once they finally emerged from the hot top of the slow and groaning printer.

I created a special folder, filled it with carefully staples copies of each poem, and one day presented the rainbow poems to my English teacher, hoping for a dialogue, hoping for some encouragement or guidance, my primordial and delicate creative sensibility indistinctly crying out for recognition. As is often the case, I was able to transmit messages to others effectively through written words but struggled with the spoken. I realize now that I didn't offer my teacher any context for my actions, and didn't say any more than "I wrote these," before shoving my folder across the desk to her and slinking back to my seat.

The next day she handed them back to me, with a confused and stiff “very nice,” and that was it. I was a little embarrassed, and a little hurt, but subsequent attempts to reach out to teachers for extracurricular cheerleading and morale boosting were so successful and rewarding that I can no longer count this experience as a negative one.


I recall with painful clarity the terrible despair of my first lost file, an irreplaceable piece of what I now understand to be an early example of that most embarrassing of genres, fan fiction. I, like many in my circle of friends, was obsessed with the movie "The Outsiders," and the many S.E. Hinton books that were related to it. My friends and I passed the Hinton books around, unaware that our squeaky clean, white suburban world left us vulnerable to the romanticizing of the hard-scrabble, blue collar challenges of these struggling, conflicted, and oh-so-dreamy book-bound boys from the wrong side of the tracks. These books appealed to us for many reasons, one of which was, the intriguing concept of "wrong side of the tracks" didn't exist in our world. In my hometown, everyone pretty much lived at the same standard of living, and the inherent dramatic tension in stories of "good girls" falling for "bad boys" was thrilling to us, and these stories created situations of romantic urgency that we could enjoy projecting ourselves into, in the safest sort of way.

I spent one wonderful summer afternoon cutting through backyards with my friend Heather, sweaty and crinkled allowance money clutched tightly in my hands as we dashed to the video store, where we rented (for possibly the ninth or tenth time) "The Outsiders," and then ducking into the sweets store next door. Heather and agreed upon a small bucket of Technicolor popcorn, which contained every color of the rainbow (see, there it is again), and every delightful flavor, ranging from Really Raspberry to Passionate Purple. Back at my house, Heather and I sat, enraptured, cross-legged in front of the VCR and television, eating each kernel of popcorn individually so we could both savor each little bit of sugary, artificially colored wonder quietly enough to not miss a single bit of dramatic, romantic, and exciting dialogue between early Hollywood heartthrobs including Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, and my favorite, the once and future Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio.

One of my earliest would-be literary masterpieces was, indeed, tragically lost to history when my failure to frequently back up as I worked collided with Dad's need to poke around in the basement and trip a fuse box. One sad summer night I sat working at the computer, after an early evening swim practice, in a half-dried bathing suit, secretively munching some peanut butter crackers (snack were utterly forbidden at the computer table, but then, like now, my need for mindless munching was a powerful drive). My mom was at the kitchen sink peeling vegetables, peering through to the front room where I sat at the computer, and actually threw a carrot across the room when the lights flickered and she heard the mournful wail escape from my lips as I realized that perhaps an hour’s worth of musings of the romantic possibilities that might have existed between me and a character in a young adult novel were forever lost.

Undaunted, the night after the tragic data loss, I sat again before the sickly green glow of the monochrome monitor, trying to recapture the magical moment I had lost. I was on my own little planet, with music and snack and the soothing click of the keyboard as I projected my naive girly desires for drama and romance onto the template of the tales of the impoverished but dignified brothers Pony Boy and Soda Pop, and their doomed and noble (and, most importantly, adorable) sidekick Johnny Cade. Through my earphones, George Michael had just stopped keening about his urgent desire to have his girlfriend devote her entire heart and soul to him (an assertion that had many qualifications, as pop fans would learn over the next few decades) when I was startled into refocus by a tap on my shoulder.

"What?!" I squeaked in startled embarrassment.

My Dad stood behind me and then leaned forward, squinting at the computer screen. Had he seen the text I was entering? Had another soul glimpsed into the improbable parallel reality in which Ralph Macchio was in love with a poorly written, awkwardly inserted roman a clef of myself? Should I, as ten year old girls feel they're on the verge of almost every moment of every day, totally and literally freak out and die of embarrassment?

"Is that for school?" my Dad asked.

"Uh, no," I replied, somewhat relieved.

"Okay, well, then, hurry up, I want to play 'Ape Escape' before I go to bed," said the man who would wake up at four o’clock the next morning to fire up the engines of a 747 and transport hundreds of passengers safely from Indianapolis to New York City.

Money well spent, indeed.

(c) 2007 Elizabeth McQuern

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