ROCHESTER, MN—Karen Widmar, 33, who for the past two months has been trying to teach her 60-year-old mother how to use the Internet, called the endeavor "a Sisyphean ordeal" Monday.
"Jesus Christ, you have no idea," said Widmar after yet another unsuccessful lesson. "Every single thing I show her, no matter how simple, totally freaks her out. She's still afraid to click on pictures because she doesn't know where it's going to take her."
Widmar said she introduced her mother Lillian to the Internet at her request.
"It's funny, I was always trying to get her interested so I could e-mail her," Widmar said. "Then, one day, she called me up and said she was watching Today, and they had a guest on who made potatoes, and the recipe was online, and was that the same as the Internet? When I told her it was, she got really excited. Maybe I should've lied."
According to Widmar, the troubles began immediately.
"Trying to show her how to use the mouse took almost a week," Widmar said. "For some reason, she got it in her head that you had to hold the button down to make it move. Then, when I explained that the computer communicates over the telephone via her built-in modem, she kept asking where you hold the receiver. And she wouldn't stop calling the keyboard 'the typewriter.'"
Still more complications arose when Widmar tried to show her mother how to navigate a search engine.
"For practice, I logged onto Yahoo! and had her search for cheesecake recipes," Widmar said. "She got totally confused by the fact that we were searching within a web site for other web sites. She kept typing her keyword searches into the Internet Explorer address bar, not into the Yahoo! search bar. Then, when she accidentally typed 'cheesecake' into the Explorer box, it actually worked, because there happened to be a web site called that, so that just confused her even more."
After nearly a month, Lillian had finally gotten to the point where she could log onto a web site on her own. Almost every time, however, something unexpected would occur, causing her to panic and call her daughter for help.
"It could be almost anything," Widmar said. "She goes apeshit whenever a pop-up window comes up. And one time, she paged me because she got a message about accepting cookies. She was all freaked out because now she thought she was being charged for actual cookies."
Widmar said her mother still does not grasp the difference between the Internet and e-mail.
"Whenever she wants to send me an e-mail, she says she's going to Internet me," Widmar said. "I think that's because we use AOL, so she has to log onto the Internet to do her e-mailing. Then there's chat rooms, which she thinks is e-mail. I just pray she never finds out about message boards. That'll throw her whole world into a tailspin."
Despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the Internet, Lillian will frequently attempt to troubleshoot problems using new terms she had heard.
"Every time she hears a new word involving computers, she incorporates it into her questions," Widmar said. "Last time she called, she said she couldn't get her e-mail working and that there must be something wrong with her firewall. I tried to explain that she didn't have a firewall, so she said her Java must be broken."
Widmar said her mother is a fairly anxious person in general, and that her recent forays into Internet use have only exacerbated those tendencies. Among her mother's greatest fears, Widmar said, is that she will be the target of computer crime.
"Last week, she freaked out because she got a porn spam," Widmar said. "Now she thinks they're targeting her for stalking or kidnapping. She wouldn't go near her computer for four days. She was also convinced that because the computer could send photos, it was capable of taking photos of her, making her susceptible to murderers."
"Then there are the viruses," Widmar continued. "She said, 'I'm afraid to look at the Internet. What if my computer gets one of those diseases I read about in the paper?' I tried telling her that viruses can only be spread if you open attachments, and that she'd have nothing to worry about if she scanned attachments before opening them. She said she was afraid she'd forget or scan it wrong, and that 'the whole computer would break.'"
Even when Lillian does manage to successfully carry out a computer-related task, she fears she has done something wrong.
"I don't know if this is working," read one recent e-mail from Lillian to her daughter. "If you hear music when you read this letter, that's my fault."
"I have no idea what she meant by that," Widmar said. "'If I heard music'? I can only assume that her computer made some sort of sound when she opened some window, and she thought she was sending the sound. Whatever."
"I got an e-mail from her yesterday that seemed to be okay," Karen continued. "There was a picture of the family cat attached, so I was happy to see that she'd mastered the art of forwarding stuff. But then she accidentally sent me the exact same e-mail seven more times. Lord only knows what she'll fuck up tomorrow."