Family Computing: I Use My Carefully Honed Skills to Put the Screws to My Own Mother
Editor’s Note: The following technical writing humor piece by Lisa Higgins is part of our collection of “classics”–technical writing articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go. Lisa wrote the “From the Sidelines” column back at the turn of the century, and her humorous take on all things technical writing rings true more than a decade later. Especially when it comes to providing family tech support.
About a month ago, my dorky little brother was in town. As usual, he drove to Colorado from New Mexico with a truck full of stuff. Once, after he left, I counted fourteen bicycles in my garage. Once, I ended up with a cat. Always, though, I get computer stuff. This isn’t good at all because I already have computers. I have Timex Sinclair 1000s and TRS-80s and 8086s and a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t even know what it is. As usual, I got some more computer stuff, much to the delight of my overnight guests, who, if they have trouble sleeping, are welcome to gaze upon and even tinker with the vast “wall of technology” conveniently located in, of course, the guest room.
This time, though, I didn’t get all of it. See, my mother lives maybe five miles away from me, and my brother gave her a computer, too. This is a source of a great deal of discord in my family. Several years ago, this brother convinced my mom to get a Mac. I told him not to do it. I don’t know anything about Macs, and like I said, I live five miles away. Fortunately, I have a fourteen year old son, who was happy to help his Granny with her Mac problems because it afforded him the opportunity to perform essential system administration tasks such as changing all her system event sounds to quacks.
So, against my protests, my little brother brought mom a Linux box. I told him it wasn’t going to work. I told him that she didn’t even like dealing with the Mac, and there was no way she was going to be able to keep a Linux box up and running. But he’s a bad person. He’s insubordinate and he went against my wishes, despite the fact that, as his big sister, I am the Boss of Him.
And a month after he left, I realized I hadn’t gotten a tech support call yet from mom. Ha. Vindication. The Linux box was sitting in a corner of her office, taking up space while she hobbled along on her ancient, crippled Mac.
So, just to arm myself for the next time I talked to my brother, I asked her about it recently. I figured I’d gather a few heart-wrenching tales of frustration and technological angst to support the booming, righteous “I TOLD YOU SO” that I was going to lay on Bad Brother.
And you know what my mom said? She said she’d like to have just one computer, but she needed to keep the Mac for graphics stuff. I could’ve probably manipulated this to prove myself right, but hey, it’s my mom. I had to tell her that Linux actually can support graphics stuff pretty well, and I could help her get the software she needs.
You see, it turns out that my mom doesn’t dislike troubleshooting. She’s not afraid of technical stuff. She was actually a programmer in the early 60s. She just doesn’t like GUI-based operating systems. She thinks they’re illogical, and she wants to be able to tell her computer what to do without it second-guessing her.
So here I was, trying to find the hand-holdingest system I could so my mom wouldn’t have to deal with configuring her hardware and tweaking her user interface, and it turns out that’s exactly what she wanted to do. It wasn’t tweaking that bugged her. It was the “voodoo” aspect. It was the fact that she was running a closed-source system that didn’t do exactly what she told it to. She’s digging Linux, needless to say. Now, I’m not going to pretend that it’s all happy sunshiney days from here on out. She’ll get frustrated at some point, I’m sure. I’m sure we’ll have some fine mother-daughter bonding over driver frustrations and XF86 anomalies and stuff.
But you know, I am the big fancy technical communication professional here. I analyze audiences for a living. I write up these pompous, all-knowing documents telling people exactly what their users need and how to give it to them, and what do I do? I go home and I use my carefully honed skills to put the screws to my own mother.
There’s a lesson here somewhere. Maybe I’ll go back to work and think real hard before I make my next assumption about the elderly widows using my technical documents, and maybe I’ll open up whole new markets for the products I work with because of my out-of-the-box insights into what users want. Then again, maybe I’ll just be paralyzed by indecision and never be able to write those authoritative analysis documents that have made me the wealthy documentation mogul I am today. Maybe my current and all potential employers will see this column and draw a big black line through my name in their list of people who know what the Hell they’re doing, with the word “Incompetent” written next to it, just in case they forget what that big black line means.
But you know, regardless of what else comes from my little epiphany, I’m still going to kick my little brother’s butt the next time I see him.
And when it comes down to it, that is what’s really important.