Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Tackling the Technology: Never Too Old!

Many older people are in a quandary: on the one hand, it seems very difficult to learn how to use a computer – on the other hand, life is getting harder all the time for those who can't use the confounded machine.

Until recently one could say :"Oh, I don't need the ghastly thing, let the children play with it", but sadly, the world is becoming so dependent on the internet that it is now sink or swim time.

It is very frustrating that everything is online these days – whether you want to pay an account, do business with your bank, reserve a library book, buy a plane ticket or just find out when the next train is, it is practically impossible to get a real live person to talk to and very often you get charged extra for it, too! You are constantly confronted with strings of double-yous and told to go to gobbledygook@somewhere.com and click on things.

Your back is to the wall. In self-defence, you have to get a computer. Then you have to learn what to do with the blasted thing.

First up, you need to buy a computer that is suited to your needs. You don't need a machine that will enable you to design a space station or balance a medium-sized country's budget. Talk to a reputable dealer who will not try to sell you expensive high-powered stuff that you don't need and will never use.

To start with, just buy your computer and a printer. Wait until you are au fait with using them before you begin to add scanners and webcams and other expensive toys.

If you have not used a computer before, you will find that your first frustration will be the physical task of learning to use the mouse and the keyboard. Perhaps you already know how to type, but if you have no keyboard skills, don't despair: your hunt-and-peck method will improve with practice until you are using more than two fingers and know where all the keys are.

It is important to choose a comfortable keyboard when you buy your computer. If the keys are small and close together, it is not easy to manoeuvre unaccustomed fingers around them. It looks so easy when the kids do it, but remember, they have small fingers and no arthritis! Plus they started practising while they were still breastfeeding.

Mastering the mouse can also be very frustrating for a first-time user. Right click, left click, single click, double click … you have to learn how fast to click, how long to hold the click down, how soon to let go when you drag and drop … go and make a cup of tea, yell at the budgie, kick the cat and try again. Remember when you learnt to ride a bike? Wobble-wobble and then suddenly, one day you could do it. Persevere!

The next thing you have to do is get someone to teach you how to use the e-mail and the internet and the word processor. Not the kids.

"Do this!" they say. Their fingers fly over the keyboard. When you ask to be shown again, they sigh and roll their eyes. You feel old and stupid. They feel clever and important. They forget who taught them to wipe their butt and tie their shoes. You didn’t roll your eyes when their little fingers struggled to get a button through a buttonhole!

So, don’t ask the kids. You need a teacher who will not make you feel embarrassed to ask the same thing several times over. Nobody can remember everything, especially when it is new information totally unrelated to any previous experience. You will need to ask again and again; it does not mean you are stupid. Your brain needs to develop new neural pathways. (I just made that up - don't know if it means anything, but it sounds good!)

Like any new skill, it takes time to learn to use your computer. Not only do your hands have to learn the physical skills, but you have to get a picture in your mind of how it all fits together – where does your e-mail go? Where does the stuff that you download come from? Why can you only have one thing on the clipboard? What is the clipboard, anyway?

If you wanted to learn how to drive the V-Line train to Sydney, you would have some point of reference because you can drive a car – if you have to learn how to cook a gourmet meal, at least you have used a sharp knife before and you have basic knowledge of how the stove works. But when you come cold to learning computer skills, you have no previous experience or similar skills to draw upon. You have to start from scratch. It is easy to become discouraged and give up, because nobody likes to feel incompetent. You need encouragement!

If you have a friend who is handy with a computer, ask him or her to give you a couple of lessons. They will be happy to help you. If you don't know anyone like that, go to your local library. They all run e-mail and internet classes for beginners. They know all the pitfalls that you will face: many beginners have passed through their hands!

While you are at the library, borrow a "Dummies" book. With their distinctive yellow covers, they are the most useful thing to come out of the publishing racket since Mrs Beeton told us how to stuff a rabbit. "Internet for Dummies" and "E-mail for Dummies" is what you want. When you return them, you will probably buy copies of your own so you can refer to them any time you like. They explain clearly and simply so even a six-year-old can understand. Or in this case, a sixty-year-old: the six-year-olds have no problems!

You may also like to try the BBC's excellent online basic computer training site, "The Absolute Beginner's Guide". It gives you simple instructions, with diagrams, and you can practise each step as many times as you like before going on to the next one. The computer never gets bored or impatient and it has no eyes to roll! To try it, go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise/abbeg/abbeg.shtml

The key factor is to keep practising – practice makes a prefect, as my little sister used to say. With assiduous practice, you will be a prefect in no time, even head prefect! Don't be scared of your computer – you will not break it by pressing the wrong key, unless you use a sledgehammer to do so. Fossick around in all the drop-down menus, try clicking on different options – experiment!

Your efforts will be richly rewarded: a new window on the world will open for you. When I was learning to read, my mother told me: "If you can read, you will never be lonely – if you have a book, you have a friend." Could she have seen into the future, she might have added: "… and if you have a computer, you have lots of friends!"

Whatever your interests, from applique to zoology, there are millions out there who share them and want to discuss them with you. (There are also millions out there who want to sell you dodgy stuff and rip you off, but that is another story for another day.)

You will meet lovely people. An Alaskan lady who answered my query on a cookery site ("how much butter is "a stick" in an American recipe?") became a good friend and we have been corresponding by e-mail for over ten years.

Go to www.writeseniors.com to find a penpal of your own age and similar interests.

You will never have to use a recipe book or a dictionary again – Google will tell you how to make haggis and chocolate brownies; it will tell you what any word means and how to pronounce it to boot.

Do you fondly remember Basil Fawlty not mentioning The War, Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, Sam playing it again in Casablanca and that wonderful credit title sequence in "A Walk on the Wild Side"? It's all on YouTube, to watch any time you like. Free of charge!

If you are of a more morbid turn of mind, you can watch Kennedy getting shot (either one) or Princess Di getting buried. If you are feeling exceptionally morbid, you can also watch her getting married, all unconscious of her doom!

You can play bridge or chess or Scrabble with an opponent in Uzbekistan or Gundagai; you can publish your poetry and your holiday snaps; you can browse through the collections of all the great art museums; you can buy your groceries or a new pair of shoes and sell that horrible vase you got for Christmas, all without leaving your chair. Give it a go!

… and every time you feel a bit intimidated by your computer, just remember this: it has the same IQ as your toaster and no opposable thumbs. They are machines, who can only do as they are told. You are the powerful being who can unplug them!

The Post-Impressionists Visit Canberra

I went to Our Nation's Capital to see the collection of 112 Post-Impressionist works kindly lent to us by the good folks at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, while their gaff is undergoing renovations.

Very often loans from foreign art museums consist of lesser works by famous artists, but this time they sent us the Good Stuff. Everything you've seen on posters and coasters. No runners-up.

An enthralling exhibition, well worth a visit.
The first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874, ten years after the famous Salon des Refuses … the paintings in this exhibition date from the mid-1880s, when a new generation of artists broke away from Impressionism, creating the various Post-Impressionist styles which became the foundation of Modern Art.

The seven Van Goghs on show were painted between 1887 and 1889, and clearly show his progression from the subdued colour and impressionistic style of his Restaurant at Asniéres and Caravans at the Gypsy Camp near Arles, to the vibrant colours and unique style of his later work.

I particularly liked Imperial Crown Fritillaries in a Copper Vase: an exuberant swirl of colour, texture and light. One tends to forget that Vincent didn't only paint sunflowers!

Members will fondly remember Starry Night, which was a highlight of the NGV's blockbuster exhibition of 2004. I even spotted a few more works that were paying us an encore visit: Still Life With Fan by Gauguin, a small study for the Bathers at Asniéres by Seurat and Georges Lecombe's dramatic Purple Wave.

The Monets on show are the larger and more decorative ones he started painting in the late 1880s, when he also took to painting series. They include the iconic bridge over the lily pond and one of his many famous views of the Italian village of Bordighera. He painted fifty or more views of the town and surrounding area during a protracted stay in 1884: our members will be familiar with them.

My favourite among the Monets, however, was his view of the sun through fog on the Thames, with the Houses of Parliament in the background. I was fortunate enough to have seen this picture as part of the exhibition "Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions" at the Tate Britian in 2004 and I got the Whitehorse/Manningham Libraries to buy the catalogue.

Members might like to borrow the book from the library: these three great artists repeatedly painted the same spectacular views of the Thames, the Seine and the Venetian lagoon, depicting the effects of the light through mists and fog at various times of the day: it is interesting to see the similarities as well as the differences in their approach.

Meanwhile, back in Canberra, there was a row of five still lifes that caught my attention: two Cézannes, a Gauguin, a Sérusier and a Picasso. All centred round the same basic motif of apples on a table. It was interesting to see how the other artists had taken cues from Cézanne: the almost geometric shapes, cropped compostion and tilted planes.

I noticed how Picasso had used the same hatched brush strokes Cézanne does and how he reconfigured the elements of the picture into shapes that already foreshadowed his Cubist phase. It always amazes me how much great painters influence each other's work.

There were a number of Cézannes on display, including the famous Bathers and two lovely landscapes. The one I found most striking was his portrait of the art critic Gustave Geffroy, who had been fulsome in his praise of Cézanne's work. Cézanne disliked him personally, but painted his portrait as a "thank-you" for his support.

The figure of Geffroy forms a strong triangle in the centre of the painting. Both Picasso and Braque were fascinated by the structure of the bookcase and the space on the table surface: geometric and yet with unusual perspectives.

Perhaps because of his antipathy to the man, Cézanne left the face and hands incomplete, creating a mysterious and vaguely menacing image.

Pointillism, spearheaded by Georges Seurat, developed as a reaction against the free impressionist style—it was based on scientific colour theories using dots of colour from opposite sides of the spectrum, which blend when viewed from a distance.

It was too much to hope that they would part, even temporarily, with Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, but they did send a couple of studies for that and for the Bathers at Asniéres.

I was charmed by an early Seurat experiment with pointillism: Landscape with 'The poor fisherman' by Puvis de Chavannes, which he inscribed on the back: "Hommage à Pierre Puvisse de Chavannes".

The very painting by Puvis de Chavanne is also included in the exhibition, among the Symbolist works. Its bleak ambience and subdued palette is very similar to "Winter" by the same artist, in the NGV's collection. Our members will have seen it there.

The next room was dominated by Gauguin: his iconic Tahitian Women had pride of place, but most of the other works dated from his stay at Pont-Aven in rural France, where he led a group of young painters who developed Synthetism, a style inspired by the pious rural community of the region.

These paintings have a tranquil, almost spiritual air about them. I was particularly taken by the works of Emile Bernard, who uses large blocks of colour, often with black outlines.

There are also some Touluse-Lautrecs in the room: his cabaret and brothel scenes in total contrast with the Synthetists' rural tranquillity.

There is just not enough space to mention all the pictures I would like to talk about, but I can't go past Edouard Vuillard's In Bed (Au Lit). It caught my eye because I have always been fascinated by Vuillard's equally enigmatic The Doors, in the NGV's collection. Both have a neutral, almost monochromatic palette and planes of flat colour.

The pale green bar across the top of In Bed makes it seem as if the sleeper is under water - and what is the significance if the T-shape that floats over the sleeper's head? Is it a crucifix cropped by a green blind or is it the symbol of a dream?

Skipping right along to the last room in this marvellous exhibition, there are some beautiful, large decorative panels, cleary influenced by Art Nouveau. I particularly liked Public Gardens, a five-panel ensemble by Vuillard and two panels for a girl's bedroom, by Maurice Denis.

The NGA has a gallery of pictures from the exhibition on their website at www.nga.com.au where you can get a bit of a preview of what is on offer.

The exhibition is still on until 5th April 2010.