In 1984, after some hard-fought negotiations with my dad, my mom bought an Apple IIe computer and installed it in our family room. It cost 3000 dollars. For a family of four, living on a school counsellor’s salary, this was a huge expense and a bank loan was required. Daddy spent a similar amount on a used red Volkswagen Beetle that he could drive to work when it wasn’t in the repair shop. The car was kaput after two years; the computer lasted eight. The marriage outlived them both, but eventually it too was discontinued.
The neighbours saw things as my dad did. They thought my mom was crazy. Why would anyone, particularly someone whose house so badly wanted a new set of drapes, spend 3000 dollars on a computer? What was that thing even for?
It was to facilitate the joy of learning, my mom said. Specifically, she needed it for a course she wanted to take at the university called “Computers in Education”. The course would count towards a Master degree, if she did one. More importantly, it would get her brain firing again, and give her the chance to talk to people more interesting than our window-coverings-obsessed neighbours. An elementary school teacher, she had been out of the classroom for seven years, taking care of my sister Billy and me. The lack of intellectual stimulation and challenge was starting to eat into her soul. At least, that’s how she would put it. Another person might just say she was bored.
The negotiated funds did not stretch to include the purchase of a monitor, so our black and white television now did double duty. Thanks to a handy switch behind the screen, we could choose whether the television should act as God intended, and give us the hockey game, The Andy Griffith Show or The Rockford Files, or whether it should obey the diktats of the buzzing beige block that it now rested on, and display a screenful of BASIC commands, word processor documents, or other such abominations.
The switch said “TV” on one side and “Computer” on the other, but the labels might just as well have said “Daddy” and “Mommy”.
Grandma came to visit. She had some money and wanted to buy my mom a present. A proper monitor, with green text on a black screen, would cost 300 dollars, and incidentally relieve some of the tension in the house. But Grandma, who lived in a house with a dirt floor in the mountains of Chihuahua before emigrating to Canada in her thirties, could not understand this request. She would give my mother a sewing machine, down comforters for all our beds, a savings bond, but a pantalla verde? A green screen? Eso no.
Mommy got her green screen eventually though. And a joystick, a dot matrix printer, and a second disk drive, which meant that we soon had boxes full of pirated software, copied from originals lent out by my mom’s new friends. She completed two courses at the university, working late into the night on her assignments and making lesson plans to use when she returned to work. She wrote personal things including a biography of her father, a missionary who died when she was seventeen. In the end, the word processor, and the self-expression it afforded, was the most exciting thing the computer brought to her life.
She was also a gamer. Her game of choice was Apple Panic, a single screen game that involved avoiding skeletons and evil apples and pounding them into holes in the ground, like a digital version of whack-a-mole. She got so into the game that at one point, when an apple attacked her avatar from behind, she actually felt it on her back, and fell off her chair onto the ground.
One morning at breakfast she appeared at in her bathrobe, hair unbrushed, holding her mug of tea, eyes black with yesterday’s eyeliner. “I beat it”, she said. “I beat the computer.”
“Good job Mama,” said Billy, her mouth full of toast.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I was playing Apple Panic, and I got higher than I’ve ever gotten before, level 20 or something, and it was like I wasn’t even doing it anymore, my hands were just moving automatically on the keys, and I wasn’t making any mistakes, and it was so fast and I just kept going till suddenly everything froze, and the game just stopped. There wasn’t any more game. It was the end. I beat it.”
Daddy, once the bank loan was paid off, and the computer became a part of our household, held his peace. He never became interested in it himself - good old pen and paper sufficed for him - but he liked the idea that my sister and I would be active participants in this new digital world that seemed destined to be our future.
Billy and I loved the computer, of course, and spent much of our childhoods using it. Playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? we learned geography and capitals and a bunch of useless facts about politics and industry. Using Print Shop we made customized birthday cards for our friends and put out a family newspaper that chronicled life in our house, such as it was. We played leveled games like Sammy Lightfoot and Conan the Barbarian, and though we played for years, we never finished any of them, or even discovered how many levels there were.
As the guinea pigs for my mom’s developing pedagogical ambitions, we learned Boolean logic and BASIC programming. This wasn’t as fun as gaming, and sometimes I outright hated it, like when my mom gave me the assignment in Turtle logo of making the turtle draw a circle. I was nine, and didn’t understand circle geometry yet. My little sister could do it, but I couldn’t. My mom had to tell me the answer. Today I have a degree in computer science and a career in software development, but I’m still agitating about that damn turtle.
We moved many times, as my parents searched for the place that they could be happy together. I went to eight schools in twelve years. Unlike friends, the computer came along with us. Being the perennial new kids, and having no one to play with, Billy and I spent our time together, with the computer, playing games that didn’t end.
Eventually we stopped moving and my mom completed her Master’s degree. Then my dad got his own apartment and we got a Macintosh Performa. This new computer could run Appleworks, a fancy new word processor, and had a 1200 baud modem, capable of rendering the hotmail homepage in just under 45 minutes. The monitor could display 256 different colours. Our green and black days were behind us.
Now we were no longer the only people we knew who had a computer at home. Prices came down, schools got computer labs, and what had been an outrageous extravagance in the eighties was becoming an expected and accepted household expense in the nineties. My boyfriend ingratiated himself with my mom by lending her his pirated copy of Tetris. Later, I married him.