The glorious inelegance of the 1990s family computer

My wife is a PC person, and I am an Apple person. To my chagrin, Lauren keeps an old Dell desktop in our bedroom, a blight on our otherwise thoughtful decor, and any time she sits down at the thing I launch into a freeform lecture on the numerous merits of Apple. After all, is there anything that Apple can't do? Elegant stores made from glass? Simple white cords that get permanently dirty in four seconds? Cat entertainment? (Yes, it's true, our now-deceased family cat had its very own iPad app when it was alive: an animated koi pond that was permanently stocked with beautiful, digital fish. The good people at Friskies built the cat app, presumably as a marketing effort. Comparatively, the only time a cat has used a Microsoft product was when it was hooked up to a bunch of electrodes, an unwilling participant in some sort of Russian space experiment.)

Jess Kimball Leslie is the author of
I Love My Computer Because My Friends Live in It.

Sometimes, though, as I lurk behind whatever Apple-branded miracle maker I'm using, I look over at Lauren's awful Dell and experience a very particular type of longing because I begin to miss an old friend of mine. I begin to miss Bill Gates.

Unlike Steve Jobs, Bill Gates has never done anything that was simple or elegant. Bill Gates is approximately as artistic as a math teacher who once went on an affordable bus tour through Europe. If there is ever a simple or elegant way to do something, Bill Gates does it the other way. Accordingly, in the early days of computing, no Microsoft product ever "just worked" when you took it out of the box. You took their shit out of the package and braced your body for a whole world of hell. Windows 95 in particular should have arrived strapped to a box of Franzia. Instead, it came plastered with exuberant, highly reflective stickers written in their own patented mumbo-jumbo language — "Windows 95, now with Telecommunications® and Drawing ToolsTM!" — all of which was way too excited about the company's latest home-computing advancements.

To be fair, the constantly-breaking-down situation wasn't entirely Microsoft's fault, as their software suffered the misfortune of running on Dell, Compaq, and Gateway computers. These were brittle, nervous machines that could be brought to their knees by almost any alteration in their physical environments. Despite owning a multitude of surge protectors, my family frequently lost hundred-dollar modems to Mother Lightning when I was a kid. I remember the way my father would bound up the stairs two at a time at the first thunderclap of a summer storm, racing to turn the computer off and save it from a debilitating unplanned shut-down. Sometimes he would immediately set to work trying to fix the thing as the thunder danced in the background, taunting him from afar. Once in awhile Dad would get lucky and manage to right the lightning-zapped modem in minutes; other times his repair attempts could last through multiple business quarters.

We knew never to ask him "how it was going" and instead used our powers of deduction to quietly chart his progress for ourselves, like the children of novelists. While he worked, we three kids took turns sitting steadfastly by him night after night, our eyes glazing over as he did the same things time and again: route print, route print, ping At approximate mealtimes one of us would ferry up from the kitchen cashews and orange juice or other combinations of his favorite snacks, hoping to keep his strength up. For days or weeks we would wait, hoping he would soon bring our mind-numbing computer games and treacherously slow Internet back to us, thus pressing restart on our normal life.

During my early childhood there were always many computers in our house, but they were all what my father classified as "projects" — that is, inimitable heaps of an engineer's broken toys. My personal favorite from the early archives was a Toshiba laptop that came with its own branded metal suitcase. The monitor was a study in reds: there was a burgundy-colored screen background and a lighter, bright red color for the font. There was something deeply unsettling about only being able to view one's own writing in red, like you were Karl Marx toiling late into the night. Nevertheless, my dad loved that machine.

My father is an engineer's engineer, so when he needs something, he makes it. He collects computers for components, scrap wood for furniture making, cars for parts, and old tools for construction. On an indulgent weekend he will savor the adventure of a good estate sale or a meandering trip to the dump. When eBay came to be, it was as if my father's personal prayers had been answered: the world's largest junkyard, brought to you by computers? Christ had welded all of my dad's interests together. The man basically hasn't set foot inside a brick-and-mortar store since 1997.

At that time I was just as brazenly unappreciative of my do-it-yourself family and my father's myriad talents as any lucky child is of her own riches. By my logic the "best" families were the ones who bought things in stores, the way all of my classmates' use- less dads did. My friends' dads either sold insurance or were lawyers for guys who sold insurance. Comparatively, these chumps didn't know how to make toast, let alone rebuild a car engine. On weekends they wore the designer polo shirts their wives picked out for them at Filene's Basement, and they talked a lot about having joined the country club or wanting to join the country club. My father wore his grease-stained work clothes and running sneakers, and at dinner he talked a lot about whatever he wanted to learn next. He has always been one of those people who looks around at the planet and sees Hogwarts. Again, because children are horrible, I was embarrassed by my father's self-actualized resourcefulness and therefore lied to my classmates about the origins of our objects when they came over to visit.

"Look at that coffee table!" exclaimed some kid who'd never seen an unbranded good in his life. "It also holds pictures? That's so cool! Did your dad make that?"

"No," I said forcefully. "We bought that in a store."

"Well, I've never seen anything that fancy in a store! That's just beautiful!"

"It's there if you look."

Although my dad is a man carved in the shadow of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he's still a computer engineer by trade, and by 1995 the 1990s' fervent excitement over the ever-modernizing family computer had finally started chipping away at his minimalist morals. After all, this was his epoch: he had spent two decades believing computers would someday change the world, and it was finally happening. Television ads depicted kids happily doing their homework aided by the knowledge reserves of a CD-ROM encyclopedia. Businessmen booked plane tickets to Dallas and played countless rounds of poorly animated Blackjack just by clicking mouse buttons. Soccer moms dutifully organized their grocery lists by aisle with an Excel spreadsheet. It was a whole new universe.

"Want to come with me to CompUSA?" my dad asked me casually one morning in June, as if he had just asked me to help with yard work.

I was already an active AOL addict at the time, but I was running a very old version of the software and Windows 3.1 on one of my father's former office computers and was years behind the setups of my closest online friends. No one else had a lousy 14.4K modem or a measly ten-inch monitor or a ribbon printer. I wanted a machine that could not only download Bette Midler pictures but scan them as well. Of course I wanted to go to CompUSA!

An hour later my dad and I were standing in the hallowed parking lot, and as he moved his toolbox to make room in the trunk for a potential purchase, he warned me that we would have to be on the lookout for a very good deal. If there wasn't a good deal, then maybe we wouldn't get a computer today at all. I nodded to let him know I understood the gravity of the situation. I knew my dad, and I would fundamentally disagree on which computer to get, as I would want the most glittering, pointlessly expensive machine available, and he would want whatever "made sense." We had everything and nothing in common.

Once in the store my father silently paced around the home-computing section for over an hour while an eager, commissioned sales kid tailed behind, attempting to decipher his emotions. When my dad is unhappy with his circumstances and trying to think his way out of them, he looks like he's trying to smell the air somewhere very far away. The computer cabana boy had no idea whether this expression was a good or a bad sign, but I knew my father well enough to identify his sentiment's exact makeup: it was part disappointment with prices and box retailer bundling strategies, and part resignation that he would most definitely be roped into paying for features he didn't even want. To my father, it seemed that the store delighted specifically in swindling computer engineers. He was pacing because he was attempting to make peace with himself; he was running through opportunity cost calculations in his head.

Two hours later and without the sales boy's help, we left CompUSA with a gloriously huge box. My dad had settled on a Dell computer, and I couldn't believe this was happening to me. Back home my brother and sister had prepared welcome decorations for our newest, most beloved family member. A desk had been cleaned and printer paper located in the hopes that Dad was also bringing home a new printer (which he was). Upstairs, with the new computer settled in the study, my dad set to work. Back then, installing Windows 95 required loading and running dozens of hard disks in the right order: make a mistake, and you had to start completely over. It was like a Microsoft-sponsored edition of Chutes and Ladders.

As usual, my brother, sister, and I took turns wordlessly sitting by our father while he watched an unreliable progress bar. "We're on disk ten of twelve," he announced gravely.

The first game my dad installed to truly showcase our new machine's capabilities was called Myst. Myst billed itself as a fun and educational problem-solving game that families could play together. In its heyday Myst was a game so important that it was on the cover of international magazines. If you are too young or too old to have been gripped by an obsession with Myst, to us 1990s people it was as if Mozart and Da Vinci had risen from the grave and collaborated.

What had they made? Why, a mystery-solving computer game, of course. And it was perfect. Watching the game's opening credit roll was an experience that took minutes to complete. Think about how much you hate waiting seconds for an app to open today. Now imagine waiting minutes. You'll then have some cursory understanding of the respect the 1990s world granted to Myst.

Myst demanded that you use your mind to solve its riddles. The job of the player was to gure out the game's complicated puzzles to unlock more parts of the game's fictional "island" to explore. The instructional book accompanying the game suggested teasingly, "Why not take notes?" And that was just the beginning of the game's haughtiness: "If you're not sure what to do next, clicking everywhere won't help. Think about what you know already, ask yourself what you need to know, collect your thoughts, and piece them together."

Myst quickly gave birth to a cottage industry of advice books about how to play the game. I believe there was even a volume of the great American "for Dummies" book series that was devoted entirely to playing Myst. Sure, you could skip to the end of such books like a chump, gathering all the secret codes you'd need to win, but that was not the kind of player Myst attracted. Myst got the dads like mine, who'd thumb through the game's official instruction book over a glass or three of wine. These dads would never, ever turn to some collection of cheat codes; instead, they would talk about their progress in the parking lots of Boy Scout meetings, each careful to never reveal any of the game's secrets to others who'd not yet earnestly discovered them on their own. Seriously, you can't make Connecticut up.

As the family's dumbest and most impulsive child, I gave up on Myst almost immediately. My father and his two children with potential, however, spent hours postulating how to access the next part of the mystery.

"I think the books with the blue spines mean something," my dad told Rob and Annie one summer evening as the trio abstained from TV, attempting instead to beat a particularly challenging level of Myst.

"If you take the first letter of the second word on the first page inside each of the books, I think together it spells another message from those letters," posited Annie, who would later go on to receive her doctorate.

After several months of Myst-ing, my father, perhaps sensing I was feeling left out, came home one night and announced that he wanted us to start spending time with a mysterious new idiot woman he suddenly liked—an international detective named Carmen Sandiego. Carmen Sandiego inhabited an even more educational world than that of Myst. Her game was peppered with questions that kids definitely did not know the answers to, such as "What country's currency is the rupee?" and "Which city is the capital of Iceland?" Unlike Myst and its lofty opening theme, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? introduced itself with a garbled song that sounded like the demo of a low-priced Casio keyboard. We looked at Carmen and her bright, obstreperous clothing — a pretty stupid choice for an undercover detective — and rolled our eyes. Carmen worked for a place called Acme, which we were supposed to believe was some sort of multinational, NASDAQ-listed conglomerate for the spying industry. Once Carmen arrived for her job at Acme, the computer screen turned into an explorer's desk equipped with a bunch of business tools that kids definitely did not know how to use. Memos? A Rolodex with contacts? Dossiers? Electronic mail? Are you kidding me? There was a moment, as we were first analyzing this screen, when we were at-out blown away by the Zack Morris phone, but we soon discovered that it only dialed the same group of maddening characters who offered factoid-laden bits of educational advice about where to next direct Carmen's plane.

"Take the ferry over, cross the Strait of Dover," read a standard suggestion in an "Evidence Report," one of the many types of documents that we children were supposed to find and read in order to get to the next level. The game's cultural references soared like eagles over our heads; no elementary school–aged child ever read the name Imelda Marcos and then threw her head back in a gale of knowing laughter.

After we accepted that we were never going to be any good at Carmen Sandiego because we didn't want to learn about culture or geography, we resorted to torturing Carmen for fun. Thanks to a lack of real-world constraints, it was possible to put Carmen on a flight for no reason and at any time. When we were mad at her we took revenge by issuing her a grueling travel schedule. "You're going to Manila, stupid!!!" we'd shout triumphantly, just as she'd touched down in Shanghai. We liked to imagine a husband back home pacing the pixelated ground of their crappy apartment and nally deciding, at long last, to get a divorce.

My siblings and I agreed that the real computer gaming action was in a holy trinity of Shareware games that my dad came to despise because they offered no educational value: Major Stryker, Commander Keen, and Duke Nukem. We determined immediately that we far preferred the fine art of killing people with our friend Duke Nukem to confusedly looking for clues with Ms. Sandiego. Were Mr. Nukem to meet Ms. Sandiego anywhere — an underwater cave, an Italian church, a place with or without rupees — Duke would most certainly respond to Carmen by shooting her several times in the gut. The thought gave us comfort.

My dad was constantly deleting our copies of these nefarious games, hiding them in different parts of the hard drive, or changing passwords that blocked us from them. Because of this, my brother, a nine-year-old who looked like he was on a hunger strike, could sit down at your computer and repartition your entire hard drive: "Open a prompt, you're in C:\. Enter DIR, that means directory — see, here's a huge list of files and folders. DIR /p, and you can flip through page by page. Oh right, he put it in Program Files. That was obvious. CD [change directory] Progra~1. CD id. CD doom. dir *.exe. doom.exe. I found Duke Nukem. It's right here."

Today, attempting to find your computer games or fix your hardware for yourself is unheard of. All Apple products are sealed in cases that are almost impenetrable to their human owners. Back in 2007 not being able to open a backdoor to your phone's innards was a huge, huge issue. "What?!" the tech reviewers cried in unison. "We can't open the iPhone and dick it up all by ourselves?!" After all, they reasoned, it was your goddamn phone: if it broke, you should be able to open it up and stick fingers or glue or rice or sand or crackers or whatever the hell you wanted inside it to fix it. Nowadays my kid doesn't even know that at-home device repair was ever an option to mankind. "This is broken!" he confidently shouts as soon as our iPad runs out of juice and stops letting him cut fruit in half.

The critical difference in today's games is not in how realistic they now look but in how infrequently they break. When something works almost all the time, we become immune to its complexity and the beauty of its simplicity. We forget that computers are nothing more than brilliant combinations and permutations of zeros and ones. Modern-day computer users no longer require a working knowledge of command-prompt language just to connect to the Internet or uninstall a piece of malfunctioning software. No longer do we experience that gorgeous, raw moment of "pinging" a website—the computer code equivalent of saying "Are you out there?" — and seconds later seeing that website ping us back: "Yes, I am." The most magical things I ever saw on computer screens were things like that, like the working ping: the things that happened in gray or green type against a dark black background, the Internet at its barest and best.

My 2015-issued MacBook is great in its slick practicality, for sure. But when I look over at Lauren's monstrous PC, I'm taken back to those halcyon days of computers when I couldn't help but get kind of excited when our ugly old Gateway suddenly didn't turn on and my dad sat down to the work of wondering why, with us three kids at his side.