Becoming a digital native at age 70 on Martha’s Vineyard

Jib Ellis slays the tech dragon at the YMCA Elder Tech Fair.

Thea Hansen of Oak Bluffs, Karn Datta, and Jib Ellis — Photo by Michael Cummo

Having shrugged off technology for the past bunch of years, I was so long the outlaw that I nearly missed the tech train. I was born in 1944, the year before penicillin, while World War II raged and F.D.R. was president. Sex would not be invented for another 20 years — well, maybe that’s not true, but TV was a full decade away, and when it arrived, TV husbands and wives wore pajamas and slept in separate beds.

Besides, TV was initially a ludicrous and immense piece of furniture with a tiny black-and-white screen and no remote. We had AM radio, and phones with a proper mouthpiece, but I couldn’t fix, let alone understand, any of it. My level of technology tapered off with pliers.

However, last month I finally stared down that inadequacy and attended a free Elder Tech Fair at the welcoming Alex’s Place lounge at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard.

The regularly scheduled event is under the generous auspices of Comcast, with the careful shepherding of Tony Lombardi, major-domo of Alex’s Place, and Ray Whitaker, the elder fitness and services coordinator at the Y. They hatched the idea four years ago to involve the entire community.

Tony says a Y is supposed to reflect its community, and we old folks are a burgeoning part of our community, so we have become a major aim.

However, youth is still the nourishment of the Y, so this project seemed perfect. It links enthusiastic, tech-savvy high school kids with Islanders who have accrued more than 55 years — those considered elder — and who are utterly stumped by their/our elusive I-products, and we are many.

It sounds simple, but each of us had an invisible hurdle to confront. We’re not used to being stupid, but can easily feel that way when faced with a handful of minute machinery which includes more technology than even existed in 1960, the year I was allowed to legally drive. Oh, there’s another quiet speed bump — admitting our seniority — but setting 55 as the starting line softened that blow. The real difficulty was learning techno speak and handling, not unlike learning sign language in Turkey.

Apparently the first step in tackling techno illiteracy is admitting one is powerless over the digital world. When my already baffling flip phone finally fell victim to evil forces, I upgraded to the iPhone, at such a late date that I expected a note from Verizon welcoming me to the current century. Alas, there was no note, but I was comfortable that I would tackle one function a month and within a year, master the little monster.

One friend, tired of my iPhone questions, told me to go find a 12-year-old and have him explain my phone. I knew the thought was correct, but tried to figure out how I could successfully meet a 12-year-old without going to jail, no matter what my intellectual intent.

The tech fair was free to attend, and was actually a casual social gathering of kids who lend hope to our nation’s future and those of us who needed their help, and not just crossing the street.

Striding through the door to embrace my ignorance, I saw a spray of tables around which there were well-groomed kids attentive to individual suave, sophisticated, tech-thirsty adults. I sat down at a table where Karn Datta, 16, sat with Thea Hansen of Oak Bluffs — who is older than that — to observe her tutorial. Thea and I first met in a class at Harvard in 1970; I gravitated to her then because she looked like an extra Hepburn, and went that way again because she has aged kindly, and I knew she was an earnest learner.

Karn easily peeled back interface layers of mysteries to Thea. She wanted to learn about Skype. Of course Thea had to primp a bit before actually trying it out, but her subject wasn’t home, thus that step had been unnecessary. But Karn delivered. Thea had connected with the magical free spectacle of Skyping.

Karn was just one of the eight mentors, mostly students, with Ray, Tony, and Ray’s daughter pitching in. Everyone was served, and all advanced to some degree with their devices. There was even one concierge event: A woman wanted to learn about her Kindle, and Ray drove out to pick up a young man who was the skilled pinch hitter on electronic books.

Most of the mini-conferences were one-on-one. When it became clear I was interfering with Thea’s tutorial, I moved to another table, graced by Savannah Barnes, a poised and alert ninth grader who helped me with my phone — the magic stone which so intimidates me.

I can do the basics on a computer, and have for some time, being cursed with the penmanship of a troubled fifth grader; I’ve emailed and filed stories with my computer, successfully Skyped, turned over my life to Facebook, and researched the world, but my phone bedevils me.

Savannah, with a hearty assist from Ray and Tony, enabled me to crack the creaky door of apps and move music to my device. The phone is now less of a threat and and more of a probationary friend.

While I have no burning desire to tweet, I suppose it should be part of the life information bank, so I shall take a stab at it next. There’s still much more to learn, and Elder Tech events happen almost monthly and, as I said, are free, so I plan to continue my education via Comcast, the MM Gagnon Foundation, the kids, and, of course, the Y.

The next Elder Tech fair is scheduled from 11 am to 1 pm, Saturday, Feb. 28. Anyone who has questions about anything related to iPhones, iPads, Androids, laptops, Skype, Facebook, Amazon, online banking, iTunes, etc., can bring their queries — and their devices — to Alex’s Place (Teen Center) at the Y. To register for Elder Tech, call 508-693-1676 or 508-696-7171, ext. 121.