My Mother's iMac 2: Travails in Email

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My mother has joined the ranks of the iMac elite. She has an ISP. She now knows what ISP stands for. She is sending e-mail. She understands that she is to stay away from Nanosaur. I have tried to explain that she should not unplug the computer when something bad happens on the screen. Computers do not like to be unplugged when they are running, I tell her. Don't ask why. They just don't.

I Am Not My Brother's Keeper

"Your brother did something to our e-mail." My mother sounds worried. My brother, a chemist, delights in "helping" my mother. He doesn't use Macs. He uses programs like TeX, a Unix-based non-WYSIWIG word processing program, and SHELX, a Unix/DOS-based program that solves molecular structures using X-Ray diffraction data. Don't ask.

"So what did he do this time?" I say, fearing the worst ("the worst" being that he decided it would be a great idea to install LinuxPP C on my mother's machine, and have her work in an "authentic" programming environment).

"He made it so all our e-mail goes out with a horrible message on the bottom. We don't know how to get rid of it."

"Oh, that's a signature file," I say. "Well, what's the problem? What does it say?"

"A plague on both your houses."

I try my best to stifle my laughter. He taunts my mother, a former English teacher, with Shakespeare. I love it.

Evil Email

This wasn't the end of my mother's e-mail woes. Without seeking my advice, she started using the Netscape E-mail program that was already installed on her computer. I warned her. Oh, how I warned her.

Of course, I eventually receive a frantic call at work. "E-mail ... isn't ... working," my mother chokes out between sobs. "It says I have six new messages, but when I go to view them, there's nothing there. It's blank. It's empty. There's nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch." She starts to get a little unglued now. "Am I going to have to do this forever?"

"You don't see anything?" I ask. "Nothing at all?"

"I don't see the messages, just these evil-looking little things," she says.

"Evil-looking little things?" I repeat. My mother has a flair for the dramatic when it comes to electronics.

"Evil-looking little symbols that we can't click on," she says, by way of explanation. This clears everything right up. "And we can't get the groups thing to work, either."

I tell her that, well, I just don't know what to tell her. "Use a real e-mail program," I say.

This must sound somewhat cruel to her, I quickly realize. I tell her how she can buy Eudora or where she can go to download Outlook Express. She sounds very frightened by the whole downloading thing, and I realize that she's not about to go out and actually purchase a piece of software, so I tell her to restart the computer. The problem goes away. No more evil buttons. I try to comfort her. Weird things happen all the time, I explain. I say that when I finally go home for a visit, I'll fix everything.

I now feel immense "I-write-for-Macworld-and-here-my-mother's-struggling-with-an-iMac-hun dreds-of-miles-away" guilt.

You Want Me to Put a Paperclip Where?

As is inevitable with an iMac that has only 32 measely megabytes of RAM, my mother's iMac crashes periodically. My mother first solved this problem by unplugging the computer. Eventually, one of the patient Apple tech support reps told her how to reset the computer.

"Okay, ma'am, get a paperclip."

"A paperclip?" My mother is incredulous.

"Yes, ma'am. A paperclip." He tells her where the reset switch is and explains to her that she needs to stick the paperclip into the little hole in order to restart the machine.

"You want me to stick the paperclip into the machine?" my mother asks.


"Isn't that a little... uh... primitive?" she says. I think she imagines that by doing this, she's somehow prodding the CPU.

I don't know what Apple was thinking when they designed the reset function on the first generation iMacs. Was it a kind of foolish optimism that made them think no one would actually have to use the switches? At any rate, the new generation of iMacs has real reset buttons. I was quite excited to see this. I told my mother.

"Now that makes some sense," she says.

"Yeah, it's great," I say. "Um, mom, what e-mail program are you using now?" I ask delicately, hoping she has upgraded to something decent.

"I'm still using that Netscape program," she says.

I start planning a trip to Illinois.

To Be Continued...

Visit the My Mother's iMac archive at

Frith Breitzer lives hundreds of miles away from her mother, but that doesn't mean she loves her any less. When she's not on the phone begging her mother to "use a real e-mail program," you can reach her at
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