I’ve always regarded my dad as the ultimate handy man. A guy who can fix or build just about anything. My bikes and cars and the places where I’ve lived have all benefited from my dad’s touch over the years.
Now 80, my dad, Dick, is just about as sharp and active as he ever was. My mom, Kathy, is 76 and the same holds true for her. The two of them have been married for 57 years, and for the past 20 I have lived on the opposite side of the country, in tech-centric Seattle.
Over the holidays, I got to spend 10 days at home in western New York and see a little bit of how my folks use and regard technology. For the most part, my understanding of this part of their lives has been colored by frantic “tech-support” calls from across the miles, or weekly Facetime chats between them and their grandkids.
I didn’t go home expecting to catch my parents Snapchatting with friends or shooting drone videos off the back deck of their house. They’re not on Facebook, they still like to go to the bank and deal with money in person, and when the land line in their house rings, my dad still says, “Who the heck is that?” before he gets up to answer it.
They are definitely old school when it comes to how they have embraced technology, but the creature comforts that they do enjoy are useful and enjoyable parts of their daily existence. They’ve had two iMacs in the past 10 years and they both have their own iPads. They have a Netflix account and a Roku player.
They finally got TracFones in case of an emergency for when they are out for a drive. Their less-than-smart phones are handy for when my dad is playing golf or my mom disappears at the grocery store, so that the two can locate one another.
During an “interview” at dinner one night, I asked my dad, “How many iMacs have you had?”
“None,” he said. “Oh, you mean computers?”
We were off to a great start.
My parents got their first blue iMac G3 in the early 2000s. The desire to keep up with what was going on with their two sons on the West Coast became too great a task for letters and phone calls to manage. They wanted in on email and the sharing of digital photographs. My mom, who has photo albums loaded with the print film history of the family dating back to the 1900s, got to know iPhoto.
Around 2006 or so, they upgraded to an iMac Core Duo, and it’s the same machine they are using today — although much more infrequently now that they have the iPads.
My mom told me the monthly cost is what keeps them from going full Apple and getting iPhones. “We don’t use it that much,” she said of their cell phones.
“The way we use the phone, we don’t have the needs of having an iPhone with all those apps and things,” Dick said, as he sat next to my son, Henry, after dinner and watched as the 9-year-old played Minecraft on an iPhone 5.
Being home and constantly being on smartphones or charging them in my parents’ house is a little bit disconcerting. But for the most part they accept that I’m constantly connected and rarely wonder what it is I or my wife feel compelled to be endlessly checking. I felt a little better each time one of them picked up an iPad and zoned out on the couch for a little bit. But that amount of time, about an hour each day, pales in comparison to how I am always lighting up my phone.
My folks play a few games on their iPads and do digital puzzles. Sometimes my dad will go down a YouTube rabbit hole and watch car chases or some other type of entertainment. Their main joy comes from the video connectivity the devices give them to distant family.
“Pure and simple we have the ability to watch our grandchildren grow,” Dick said. Like most grandparents, and many parents, they are watching as those kids not only get bigger but smarter in terms of how to use modern technology.
“It is what it is, it’s just something they’re growing up with. They gotta have it,” Kathy said. “I sometimes get annoyed when people have a phone in their hand constantly.”
Dick and Kathy get about 20 or 30 emails a day, and some text messages from me on their iPads. There is no history of any of this because they keep those feeds religiously free of clutter. One day they asked for my help in moving images off their iMac onto a USB drive so that they could get some DVDs burned to watch on TV. In 10 years they had accumulated less than 1,500 photos — I probably took that many on my phone in 10 days during Christmas.
My mom took this occasion to also tell me the unfortunate tale of a friend who dropped her phone, loaded with photographs, into a toilet.
“It flushed,” Kathy said. “It was a school toilet — you know how powerful those things are!”
My parents have been daily newspaper subscribers for at least 60 years, and each morning I sat with them as they thumbed through the morning news over coffee. I asked why they continue to read print when they could simply fire up their iPads in the morning.
“It’s just easier to sit there in the morning and turn a page and read a complete story,” Kathy said. “I don’t know, it’s a habit. We’re dinosaurs … .”
They do use the iPads during the day now and then to check for updates on news that might be developing. My dad said he’ll sometimes check for more information on a name that he came across in a story, but said he didn’t need to constantly know what was going on throughout the day. My mom said she does check the news occasionally and she uses Google “a lot.”
“If I want to know why whales are blue, for instance, I ask Google,” Kathy said, joking about how her curiosity about all sorts of subjects drives her to find a quick digital answer.
My mom, who reads a new book about every 10 days or so, said she still loves the feel of a book in her hand, although she wouldn’t refuse the gift of a Kindle (damn, Christmas fail). Music in the house still comes out of a traditional radio. No one is chatting with Alexa or Siri, and probably never will. But maybe if I lived closer and introduced more cutting edge tech into their lives they would embrace it.
“There’s always things I wish I was better at,” Kathy said. “Somebody would have to show me, and then I would tell you, ‘Oh, I wish I knew how to do that.'”
At the end of my stay, I left for home feeling pretty great about how my parents use technology. I cover this stuff for a living now, and it boggles my own mind trying to keep up with everything that is new. My bleary eyes and the chunks of real conversations that I miss speak to the distraction that gadgets cause in my own life.
Dick and Kathy proved that just enough tech is just fine.