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facts & arguments

JOREN CULL/The Globe and Mail

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I taught my father how to text. I figured that, at 60, he is young enough to handle the responsibility.

I waited until all the Scotch tape in the world couldn't hold his flip phone together any more and he had to succumb to Dreaded Change and procure himself a smartphone (or, in his case, an outsmart phone as it is constantly finding ways to befuddle him: Hanging up without the physical act of closing something is foreign to him, eliciting panic if the person on the other end doesn't hang up first).

Trying to teach him predictive text on his old flip phone would have been like asking him to learn calculus using Chinese textbooks. It would require forging new neural connections; you might as well ask the cracks in the sidewalk to move an inch to the left.

And so, when he showed up for lunch holding a shiny new whatever-smartphone-Fido-was-giving-away-free-that-day, I decided it was time.

"All right, Dad. You need to learn how to text."

"Yeah, Pete learned how to text last year, he does it all the time now." Pete is his BFF.

First I taught him the basics, like how to access texting on his phone.

"No, just touch the screen here. You don't have to swipe. I said don't swipe."

We young'uns have found ourselves in a position of superiority in knowledge. While we look to them for wisdom they stare back at us helplessly, like lost silver-haired and bespectacled children, holding out glowing hand-held devices in the hope we'll impart some of our youthful whizdom.

Just as they watched us learn to walk, we are witnessing the miracle of their cognitive development, albeit at the speed of a Sunday driver who's left the turn signal on.

My mother lived without electricity for the first few years of her life. Now that same house in rural Quebec, passed down to my uncle, has WiFi and eight-year-olds with Facebook accounts. Technology is advancing at such an exponential pace that I can't blame my parents for falling behind.

I'm not saying everyone over age 35 is technologically challenged. Some are constantly ahead of the game, while others spend their lives running to catch up and tripping over their own feet. I only joined Twitter last year. I have yet to tweet and, to be perfectly honest, I'm intimidated by the whole thing. My one reason for joining was to follow Steve Martin. At 68, he has a firmer grasp on social media than I ever will.

In my family we don't oppose technology, it's just not that important to us.

The exception was my grandmother's talking Chrysler back in the eighties. This was cutting-edge automotive innovation (aimed at the elderly, whose only sense worse than eyesight was their hearing). Somehow the technology did not survive. It was a passive technology – you didn't have to do anything. It said things like: "The door. Is ajar." Or: "Your washer fluid. Is low." It stopped talking after a few years, and I wouldn't be surprised if the last thing it said to my grandmother was: "Listen, Alma. I don't think. This is working."

My sister got her first cellphone just last year. As for me, I have about five apps on my iPhone – things like Butt Workout that I've only used once.

We seem to attract like-minded folks, too: My brother-in-law recently joined Myspace thinking it was Facebook.

My mother couldn't care less about being near the front lines of technology, but she's forced to use e-mail when I am travelling. Her typical message is something like: "hi kerri i hopeyou are hAVING A GREAT. TIME BE CAREFULI MISS YOU LOVE MOM."

At least my dad tries to stay current. He recently said to me, "not to sound like a stopped CD, but …"

"I'm sorry, a what?"

"A stopped CD."

"You mean a broken record."

"Yeah, well, I changed it. I don't want to sound dated."

He tries. It was a proud moment when I watched him send his first text. It really was like teaching a child to read or tie his shoes. You resist the urge to just do it for them. You say things like "sound it out" and "what does the bunny do?"

Dad: "Where's the u?"

Me: "Same place as on a computer keyboard."

"Where's the space bar?"

"Dad! Same place!"


Finally, after much trial and error: "Where's the send button?"

"It's the one that says send."

And it was done.

His first text to Pete: "Hi pete its steve you are an asshile."

Very mature. My father can be an old man, a baby and a teenager all at the same time.

"How do I change the i to an o?"

"You can't, it's already sent."

I'm not sure if autocorrect would make things better or much, much worse. By the time we finished lunch, Dad was still as wobbly as a kid learning to ride a bike, but at least I could let go of the seat, shouting "don't text and drive!" as he disappeared from sight.

I've been receiving daily texts from him ever since. One recent conversation ended with "ok c u soon love dad."

"c u? Who taught you that?"

"I surprised myself actually."

"Pretty soon you'll be using emoticons!"

"what r those"

Baby steps, Dad. Baby steps.

Kerri Flanagan lives in Montreal.

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