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Computer convert proclaims the gospel of e-mail

We have been invaded at our house, and the invader has established a beachhead that seems to be expanding each day.

The invader is a personal computer, a creature that has triggered ambivalent feelings in me for the past several years. I considered buying one at the time I retired, but opted for a word processor instead. It has served me well for more than seven years, helping me turn out columns and write letters to friends and legislators, as well as handling occasional business correspondence.

But it didn't give me access to the Internet. If I wanted to contact a friend or relative, I had to rely on the telephone, or snail mail.

In four short weeks, all that has changed. Now, if I want to sound off to my representatives in the Legislature or Congress, I can do so almost instantaneously. I am never placed on hold. If I want to order a hard-to-find book, I know a Web site to contact where it can be found. If I want to know the lowest air fare to New York or London, or even to some remote Asian capital, again I know how to find it. The same is true for hotels and bed and breakfasts, and I can make my own reservations.

I know all this early in my new computer life because my wife and I attended a class on the Internet at our church, and we saw all this demonstrated as we sat in open-mouthed wonder. And we have been gradually working ourselves up to tackling such electronic exploits on our own.

I know from all the instruction booklets that came with the computer and from conversations with computer-savvy friends that we have hardly scratched the surface of this communications wonder. But still, already I can punch a couple of buttons and come up with the Dow-Jones average at any moment of the day. And I can, and do, check baseball and football scores without waiting for them to roll by at the bottom of a television screen _ frequently being interrupted by full-screen commercials just about the time the score I've been waiting for arrives.

But best of all, we have become experts at e-mail. Well, at least semi-experts. E-mail probably was the one thing that pulled us into the ranks of computer owners/users. We now are in contact almost daily with those in our family who live far away, sometimes even with those right here in St. Petersburg, via e-mail magic. We can send messages just as quickly to a friend in England.

One of our Iowa friends, apparently sensing our excitement over our sudden ability to exchange news and views with friends so easily and so quickly, suggested that we might like the comments of Carolyn G. Heilbrun in her new book, The Last Gift of Time; Life Beyond Sixty.

Heilbrun, who devotes an entire chapter of the book to e-mail, believes every senior should have access to this method of communication. She applauds President Clinton's goal of having each youngster able to enter the Internet by the age of 12, but she would rather see seniors learn to use a computer at least well enough to take advantage of e-mail. She would like to see a personal computer in every retirement home, apartment or dwelling that is home to anyone over 65.

The author became computer literate while teaching at Columbia University, and she is forever grateful. She considers it especially important to get computers into the hands of those seniors who see them as belonging to the future, or those who think because they can't program a VCR they couldn't adapt to e-mail.

Heilbrun points out that e-mail "is especially suited . . . to those of us no longer revolving our days around the working world. It reaches into our privacy without invading it . . . it connects us to those with whom the possibility of connection might have remained unexpected . . it inspires us to confidences and the practice of wit."

I couldn't agree with her more. I know that, at least in this area, many seniors already are computer owners and users. But those of you who aren't would do well to give it consideration. As for cost, the author points out that "electronic equipment is the only aspect of modern life that has notably come to cost less and less with the years."

I'll be writing more about my move into the computer era, and the many wonders I know this marvel can perform, in the months to come. And I'll be happy to hear from any of you who care to join me in my adventure. You can e-mail me at jayhorningaol.com.

_ If you're not online, you can write to Jay Horning the old-fashioned way in care of Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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