Marriage Saved

The plight of the computer widow
by Eileen Haas

Eileen Haas, a former computer widow is currently director of communications for Bruce & James Program Publishers, Inc.

Blessed are those homes where the whole family is interested in computers and where household members fight for time at the keyboard. Less fortunate, but not in trouble yet, are the homes where everyone is blissfully ignorant of computers and doesn't care a fig about learning to use them. The trouble comes when only one person in a family of two or more is nuts about his computer.
    Computer widows need help. (So do computer mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to Atari oblivion; computer widowers who may starve to death because they never learned to cook for themselves; computer siblings who are taunted mercilessly for not knowing a cold boot from an ice cream cone; and computer orphans who pray daily for divorce so they can get at least one day of "quality time" with each parent.) Computer widows face a very real problem, but there's a real solution. I consider myself living testimony to the fact that you can get through computer widowhood without losing all your friends, hating your entire family or taking out divorce papers.

A Case History
Five years ago my husband bought his first personal computer-a Heathkit model that he had to build himself. He was unemployed at the time, so we weren't rolling in dough, and I was infuriated that he'd dared to withdraw fourteen hundred dollars of our hard-earned money to buy what I regarded as no more than a ridiculously expensive toy.
    I ranted and raved. I tried to talk him into buying model airplanes instead; at least they would have been cheaper. My husband was adamant. I was sulky. Then one day the computer arrived on our doorstep.
    First there was (and always would be) the question of where to put the damned thing. Personal computers themselves may be small, but complete systems require "peripherals"-a fancy name for more para-a printer, you might as well start looking for a bigger apartment. Which is exactly what we did.
    So there we were, paying twice the rent just to house the beast that was now happily residing in its own bedroom. And I soon began to realize that my husband was spending more time in that bedroom than in ours. Not to mention that he was often absent from the dining room at mealtimes, preferring to pick up his plate steaming hot from the kitchen, carry it into his computer den and feed himself in front of the monitor.
    I grew angrier and angrier. I started issuing ultimatums. I even began conspicuously reading "apartment for rent" ads in the Sunday papers. Things were coming to a head when my husband finally found a job. My joy, however, was short-lived: it turned out he was going to be the new managing editor of Byte magazine, the computer enthusiasts' bible. Some women would have slit their .wrists. Many would have walked out. All would have cried. Being the type of person who knows when she's been defeated, I gave in. If you can't beat 'em, I told myself wearily, you might as well join 'em.
    I took the plunge with a course in data processing. To my amazement, I breezed through it; to my greater amazement, I enjoyed it. It began to dawn on me that anybody with a brain and at least two fingers could use a computer. Two classes later I found I could actually write programs, and I fell in love with word processors to the point where I buried my Smith-Corona at the bottom of a little-used closet. And, lo and behold, I didn't lose a bit of my humanity. I still baked cookies and read Proust. I still had friends. My cat still liked me.
    It was a long, hard road for me. Looking back, I've learned that 1) computer widows are not alone; 2) there's nothing wrong with them for feeling the way they do about computers; and 3) though they really don't have to learn about computers, it would definitely enrich their lives (not to mention incomes) if they did.

Is It Terminal?
Before you start feeding your partner's computer manuals into the office paper shredder, you should find out if you're overreacting. There's computer mania and there's computer mania. Your partner may only be suffering mildly; he may have a well-developed but not terminal case; or he may be so far gone that he no longer recognizes human speech.
    Computer mania can be divided into three phases:
• Bad. The seed of obsession has been sown. He's been reading computer magazines like crazy; he's even let his Playboy subscription run out. Computer stores are to him as fire hydrants are to dogs.
• Worse. The computer has moved in. It occupies a throne in the most inconvenient location in the house ("What do you mean we have to use the dining room table for meals?"). Computer manuals have begun to pile up in every corner.
• Intolerable. Like the Little Prince, your partner inhabits a very tiny world; instead of a rosebush, he's got a computer. He takes his phone calls in front of the computer. He brushes his teeth (when he remembers to) in front of the computer. You've dyed your hair red and he hasn't noticed. You're seething and he hasn't noticed. He's in big trouble and he hasn't noticed.

Marriage Saved

Understanding the Illness
Consider what the computer does for your mate. He can create and solve monumental problems in a single afternoon: How many politicians can dance on an MX missile? If everybody in the world sneezed at the same time, would it change the direction of the prevailing trade wind? He can create worlds of his own. He is master of all he surveys. (This is also known as the Computer Napoleon complex.)
    With you, he has to deal with all sorts of variables-mood, temperament, and lots of other nasty things. His computer will never scream, sigh reprovingly, give him the evil eye or insult his mother. All it asks for is some electricity and some disks so it can be fed some programs.
    On the other hand, you're softer, furrier, and probably smell better. And no machine can give him a back rub, laugh at his bad jokes or nibble his earlobe. At least not yet.

What's Your Problem?
Let's examine your reasons for going into such a tizzy over the little monster. Basically they boil down to one thing: you have a rival-and a pretty formidable one at that. You can't compete with a computer the way you'd compete with a human rival. You can't beat it out by doing your Jane Fonda workouts twice as hard and learning to whip up a mocha torte at the drop of a chocolate chip.
    Not to worry. It's okay to be jealous of the way he can make that little machine sing. But at this point you have to decide what to do with all that negative energy. You can swallow your pride, give in and tackle the machine yourself. Or you can make one last attempt to pry his fingers loose from the keyboard.

Cures for the Nearly Gone
Okay, you've really had it. The only time you heard a peep out of him all week was when he cried at dinner because his disk crashed. He's been having nightmares about giant blinking Pac-Men chasing him. You suspect he's living in a twilight zone that Rod Serling never even dreamed of. It's time to get him back into the world of the living.
    Here are some tried-and-true methods to make him realize that human beings aren't simply appendages hanging from the edges of keyboards:
• Take him far away from civilization. Beaches, parks and tropical islands are all good choices. So are delis, pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants as long as they don't have video arcades.
• Get him to talk about other things. "Do you think we should have a baby?" and "Do you believe in God?" are good ways to start a non-computer conversation. Other topics include the senseless slaughter of kangaroos and the quality of raincoats manufactured in Romania.
• Avoid cerebral activities. Coaxing him into playing Scrabble, for example, will only remind him that the spelling checker on his word processor isn't working right.
• Talk a great deal about a man you admire. Dwell on all the wonderful aspects of his personality. Mention how much you enjoy his company. Mention how much he enjoys your company. Don't forget to mention that he hates computers.

The Bottom Line
You've tried everything. You've wined and dined him; you've bought sexy underwear, pleaded, coaxed and threatened. You're at your wit's end. When all else fails, you can:
• Do a rain dance. Thunderstorms tend to cause electrical problems, and electricity, as well we all know (or should), is the computer's Achilles heel.
• Lie down across the keyboard and refuse to get up. Insist it's the only comfortable spot in the house.
• Refer to an article you've read, claiming that people who spend too much time at their monitors turn into cretins (something about a hormonal problem caused by screen glare).
• Tell him a guy on the Today show said you can get herpes from computers.
    Now, are you willing to admit you've been fighting a losing battle? If so, don't feel bad. You too can become a computer bore.

In the never-ending search for a way to get their partners to abandon the computer, some women have come up with pretty daring schemes. Take Tracy, for instance, a young science teacher whose husband had become so enamored of his Commodore 64 that she could have spilled hydrochloric acid all over the house and he wouldn't have noticed.
    Tracy had tried just about everything when she lit upon her ingenious scheme. Inspired by a newspaper account about computer crime, and armed with a great deal of knowledge about her husband's code of ethics, she came up with the perfect solution.
    She started by expressing interest in the computer. She coaxed her husband Bill into teaching her how to use the machine. She learned (or pretended to learn) programming. Soon she was a real whiz. She could say things like "The DOS editor isn't interfacing with the modem" without batting an eyelash. Bill was impressed.
    Soon Tracy was having mysterious late-night sessions in the computer room. She told Bill she was working on an important project, one that would make them rich. Bill was awed. He brought her meals so she wouldn't have to leave the keyboard. He answered the phone. He kept the TV turned down. The atmosphere in the house became hushed, expectant.
    One evening Tracy rushed out from the computer room, clutching a ream of continuous-feed paper. "I did it!" she crowed.
    Bill beamed with pride. "Wonderful!" he exclaimed. There was a pause. "What did you do?"
    Tracy was triumphant. "I cracked First National's secret code," she said. "We now have over two million dollars in our account!"
    When Tracy was able to revive him, Bill made her promise to put the money back. She agreed, but only under one condition: that she be allowed to work on another project concerning lucrative electronic transactions. This one involved numbered Swiss bank accounts.
    Poor Bill never got to sleep that night. The next morning, faced with the monster he himself had created, he did the only thing a decent husband could do to protect his wife from her own cleverness. He got rid of the computer.


It's not that he doesn't love you anymore. It's not even that he loves the computer more than he loves you. It's just that, momentarily, the computer is easier to deal with. Let's look through his eyes and compare the computer to you, his mate.
ohm sweet ohm
The Computer
Asks you to spell "syzygy." Point to the dictionary and tell him to look it up himself. Graciously prints the correctly spelled word on the screen.
Invites you to play a game of chess. Are too tired, lazy, or bombed on Jacobazzi to remember where the pieces go. Is a ready, willing and able partner, and will even let him win if programmed to do so.
Asks your opinion about taking out a second mortgage. Shrug and tell him to figure it out. Has all the facts and figures he needs in a jiffy.
Wants chicken cordon bleu for dinner. Can't find the recipe, and anyway you'd rather take out Chinese. Gives him the exact recipe and even halves it so he can make it just for himself (you don't deserve any).
Tells you to go to hell. Pack your suitcases and leave (or threaten to). Stares him calmly in the eye and asks if he really wants to erase the whole disk.

Revenge against the computer can be sweet. It can also terminate your marriage or relationship. The recommendations that follow are offered only for the most extreme cases.

Don't Do
Keep program disks in their jackets or sleeves. Use his disks as trivets for your pots and pans.
Treat those little silicon chips with respect-they're at the heart of all your problems. Take out the memory board to use as an extra cookie sheet for holiday baking.
Ask your partner whether he has any important data stored inside the computer. Turn off the computer whenever you see it's been left on. You should be able to wipe out what he's working on.
Keep the computer from sticky fingers, dirt, moisture and heat. It's allergic to all of them.
Put the new kitten on the keyboard just to see what will happen.

E. H.

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