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I feel dirty and strange. It's probably only psychosomatic, but my skin itches.

Truthfully, I helped my grandma buy it. I want her to be back online. She wants to be back online. My family wants her online.

She was learning, and communicating via email with family and friends, and sort of getting along. Learning.

And then she had a stroke. This woman that could take shorthand faster than anyone you know could speak or type, run an office, and out-labryinth lawyers. Who published her church newsletter for years, laboriously laying out strips from a typewriter and placing paper clipart for Photostatting. Tape. Uhu glue stick. Manila folders. Selectrics. I've seen these finished sheets, and they hold up against Quark Xpress layouts.

And then someone came along while she was in the hospital and installed Windows 98 Second Edition and Office 97 on that poor munged 486sx -25 with 16 megs of ram, somehow managing to mangle the install so badly it took fourty-five minutes from boot to loading Yahoo in Explorer. I timed it. The box sits unused, unusable, for the better part of a year, exponentially growing older by the millisecond. I look through my boxes of obsolete parts and hem and haw and wait for software from a friend, a card from another, and it just sits there. Inert.

A month ago my brother talks about getting a new 17" iMac with Superdrive, so his wife can make videos of their brand new baby girl and send out DVDs. My brother. He who installed linux on an OG Palm Pilot just to see if he could, even if all he could do with it was telnet into it through COM 1. We've been didactically PC for almost fifteen years. I have been the most unapologetic Mac-hater in the world, ever since the Mac II series, since PCs had 8 bit ISA soundcards and xGA. I burnt my Apple banner well before the Apple IIgs, though I've secretly saved some stickers from my IIe. I have said many unkind things. I've watched OS X for a while, finding myself drooling against my will. Over a Macintosh. Yeah, it's OS X that does it. I see a new 15" iMac at my local coffee shop actually find myself using it. I find apple.com first in Explorer's URL dropdown on my wintel Toshiba notebook.

And it doesn't hate me. It doesn't crash on me like every single other Mac I've used since that ill-fated II series, right up to System 9 on a dual-proc G3. I'm serious. Macs hate me as much as I hate them. They'd always crash just for me right after someone had been pushing it for an hour, ringing the bells and blowing the whistles. Yeah, Macs had a personality. Surly.

So I find myself in one of the most ostentatious malls in all of Southern California, the Glendale Galleria. I hate malls. Malls make me feel so simultaneously angry and inexplicably inadequate. I always feel flushed and flustered in a mall. I haven't been in a mall in so long I don't remember how many years it has been.

My grandma doesn't walk so good now, much to her stubborn consternation. After a hundred yards and down an elevator my grandma's through, I can see it, and we're hardly a fraction of the way there. Stopping by a bench, I spot a customer service booth. 'I'm going to see if I can get you a wheel chair', I tell her. She complains, not wanting to. Not wanting to sit and be seen that way. 'Grandma, sit down, I'll be right back.', I say, striding off before she can argue. She gets in 'I've never been so ordered about in my life!', mockingly humorous, lovingly sarcastic. 'Oh, I'm sure you got plenty from Bill', I manage over my shoulder. Bill was my grandfather, her husband gone 10 years now. He would be the one here asking questions, there researching prices and features.

They do have wheelchairs, but not at this desk. I flow through the traffic, and coincidently the service desk with the wheelchairs is directly in front of the Apple store. The Apple store glows like the set of 2001, the sordid temple of some cult. Sanctified whites, a cleanliness onto godliness set apart from the gauche brass and antiqued faux bricks and tiles of the mall's nauseating décor. A goddamn cult. So much white it tricks the eyes and colors form, phosphenes in the peripheral. Seriously, what the hell am I doing here? White, gray, silver and clear things blur together into an amorphous gelatin, reaching out with threateningly sticky pseudopods at me. Even the staff is besmirched with torcs of lexan and cabling; clear coated, silver braid shielded USB dangling a name badge behind some occulted refraction.

I get her to use the wheelchair, thankfully. Wheeling it through the foot traffic was fun, fluids parting to slipstream. Move, or be run over if you dare get in the way of this little old lady, I challenge all comers. I wheel her right into to the store, right up to blonde-pine wall mounted display bench supporting these iMac and eMac things. It feels like an Ikea, with the heady tang of 1981 in Palo Alto with all their cocaine, champagne and hot tubs. Nudity. Sex is pungent in the air. I feel nervous, even fruity.

My poor grandma!, I think. 'I hope this music doesn't come with it', she jokes, noting the fairly loud and homogenous adult-alt-contemporary-eclectic pop-folk-rock-electronica blend pouring out of hidden speakers. If it wasn't for the coyingly obvious blend, I would probably like it. It just needs to lean one way or the other and be done being unobtrusively intrusive. Something reeks of Starbucks, of that special-blend, fine-grit, triple-patented corporate polish that smoothes the edges off of anything.

I pull out my chunky, dependable Pentium laptop, checking for wireless, wielding it like a shield. Of course they have open wireless here. I've been carrying my laptop around pretty much wherever I go, making NetStumbler logs. I show the different models to grandma, pointing out the iMac with the floating screen. I show her the docker, have her try the keyboard's weight and feel. A young goateed salesman hovers almost immediately, but not intrusively. I see a party in his face from the night before or something, a nerdly hipness. Pimples. We look at the prices, I explain the options as best I can in plain English. The salesdude is helpful, but not pushy. We discuss voice recognition and transcription. Grandma's eyes light up, she seems eager even. 'So should we take this one home or that one?' she asks, 'I don't want to have to come out here again', tired. All the while I'm eyeing the powerbooks and iPods across the store, trying to stay focused. The choice and responsibility is mine, and I'm in virgin territory.

I message my brother, my laptop looking beat and literally quite filthy here. I feel grounded though, having this old grey beast along to reassure me. I discuss the options with him, he laughs at me for having my laptop with me. We decide on the lower-end eMac with extra memory and a voice recognition program that includes a USB headset microphone. USB microphone? In my nervousness, I mess up two checks trying to fill them in for my grandma to sign. I've never filled out a four-digit check before. I get the salesman to do it, checking in with my brother online. The salesman messes one up as well, joking that I jinxed him.

He helps us wheel the huge box out to the car on a cart, my laptop thrown atop the box. A display of dominance? I didn't want to carry it? He's worried about responsibility for my hardware, continually adjusting it one-handed like it's going to sprout polycarbonate legs and leap off the box or something. No big deal, but I'm amused. I've dropped that laptop down a flight of concrete stairs with no ill effect. It's a tank. I'm never worried about using it while riding a bus through the ghettos of Los Angeles, because I could beat all but the burliest assailants to tatters with it. Take my laptop, motherfucker. Make my day. It could stop bullets with its girth.

The eMac's gigantic box doesn't fit in the car. At all. Not in the trunk, not in the back seat. We unpack it, setting the machine on a blanket in the trunk, breaking down the box. The new scent of outgassing polymers fills the car all the way home, twisting with us through dry, shady roads into the hills above Los Angeles. Glendale, Verdugo, Chevy Chase, Foothill. Descanso Gardens.

Later that evening, I boot it up for the first time, enter system settings, turn on the stuff that'll make it easier to see and use for grandma. I play with it, explore the software, read some help files. I find cool things, like the spring loaded folders, speakable items, basic Mac stuff. The Quartz 'rendering engine' is gorgeous like rain. Slick like snot. No, I'm not getting paid for this. Something like geek-dogma nags at my hindbrain and I'm wary, hairs prickling at the nape, unconsciously feeling for RMB. I open a Terminal window, probing at the BSD innards, comforted by these arcane underpinnings. Berkeley, do you know what you hath wrought? Did you ever imagine this? That your blood, sweat, and tears would be sold alongside Mrs. Fields cookies and Armani couture to the overly washed masses in shiny plastic boxes, with nary a Birkenstock, tie-dye, or Frisbee in sight? Is this the Community Memory Project you saw thirty-odd years ago? Would you call this a machine of loving grace?

And so we began to learn. Again. Since the stroke, she has a hard time multitasking, dealing with abstracts. She searches for words that are no longer there, a tectonic rift that has changed her mental geography, a rupture in the landscape. Synaptic threads and neural combinations no longer point to where they should. She calls me by her son's name, my cool uncle-now-deceased. The uncle I wished I had a chance to smoke grass with before he left, though my family wouldn't have understood. We would have let our minds wander, and would have talked about anything. The uncle that used to pull pranks on JPL down the hill with homebrew hydrogen blimps, payloads of iron oxide powder to confuse telemetry and radar. Though we were, would have been, should have been two peas - tottering between underachieving brilliance and dropping out entirely - I still find it unnerving.

That she can walk and talk, that she remembers how to type QWERTY, that she has motor skills at all - are little miracles that add up into big ones - but she's still frustrated, more so than I. A lost cause, some might say; eighty-three, suffering from medically-defined brain damage. But she still follows me on my occasional tirades about the unnervingly gorgeous qualities of space and time, my rants on literature, semantics, and semiotics. She even grasped the ideas of arrays and pointers, variables, in a recent lay description of programming languages. The very little that I know, a cluster of galaxies to her. She still appreciates irony and sarcasm. No, not lost, not just yet.

I teach her window management, data manipulation. Copy and Paste. How to pick up the mouse and slide it back when you run out of room; she forgets this, and tries twisting and contorting the mouse to get there. All the stuff I've taken for granted for years; stuff we all take for granted these days. The beginning. Menu bars, toolbars, applets, how to save and open files. I have her paint and draw in a simple program, and it comes out at first like toddler's finger-painting, though she was active in sketching, pastels, oils. Rudiments begin to form, a dog, a hat, a shoe. I prod her to remember how to look for the function she wants; Save, save-as, sleep, shut down. 'Fantastic!', she says, bedazzled. 'What an amazing machine… So much to learn.'

I know I'll have to go over and over these basics, well past ad nauseaum into raw weariness. Each time, she'll remember one more out of a list of dozens, each prerequisites for happy computing. And I hope. Hope that she "gets it", that soon she'll be able to communicate with family and friends, that she'll continue her genealogical research, write down some family history. Hope that this renewed activity will awaken that which slumbers, open up the pathways and enable that fantastic reconnective ability I know the brain and CNS are capable of. Hopefully.

The possibility of her 're-wiring' is what I'm most hopeful for; what really tipped the balance for me in deciding to recommend the Mac, or any computer at all to her. Next would be less television. So much television I've grown ill from it. After that, communication, news, research, and fun, in that order. Scratch that. Fun will jump around like an epileptic monkey, taking its rank wherever need be. I want to show her fractals, Hubble pictures, and that one composite "midnight lights" satellite image of all our growing cities at night. Strong Bad, Usenet, online board games, and Google. Instant Messaging. Genealogy databases. Everything. Come look, grandma, come look at this. See what your children have made. See what fantastic toys we have made of the tools of the war you and your husband fought.

OS X is slick, to be sure, but it's still just a computer. I order DSL, and shoot up a mess of trouble after the modem arrives three days later. OS X, apparently, has a rather kludged TCP/IP stack, the native PPPoE client incapable of multithreaded sessions, therefore incapable of talking to the multithreaded router down the road in the central office. Apple.com's discussion boards list 500+ comments in dozens of threads dealing with this issue and DSL. I try side-steps, quick fixes, and power-cycling voodoo, dancing a randy tango with a phone in one hand and a foreign, glowing mouse in the other. Ah, well, I was going to get a router anyway, but Goddamnit it should work. Now, not tomorrow.

I wonder if I'm just looking for a magic pill, a silver bullet. Snake oil for grandma. It is magic dust! Please, please, you must pay heed to the magic dust…

I know I am, in one sense, but in another there's a greater purpose here. Connectivity. These days, connectivity reaches much farther than the RJ-11 jack in the wall, well past the Ethernet, running circles around self-healing Sonet rings, leaping over OC 48. Circuit traces reach right up into the brightest and darkest wrinkles and furrows of our souls, letting us know we are not alone. They give us the voice of God, the ability to shout across the crowded room of this planet Earth, to see and hear those so far away, yet so near.

And still, thankfully, it's just a computer.

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